Harley Worthy: What Can We Learn from the Latest Wales Squad?
Other than #PivacOut, wise guys.
As the vicious cycle of Welsh rugby hits the “X coach doesn’t know what he’s doing” and “we can only support x number of pro teams” stage, we find ourselves once again at the business end of the season with no Welsh representation in the playoffs. To add to the domestic misery the men’s national side hit what is possibly one of their darkest days since 2007 (coincidently also masterminded by Wayne Pivac) seeing an unjustifiably arrogant performance in defeat against Italy (Seriously take the points FFS).
Looking ahead we see the Storm(ers) on the horizon as we travel South to the reigning world champions. Earlier this month, Pivac named a 33-man squad to travel and - much like most squad announcements - Welsh rugby was outraged by the selection of some players and confused by the omission of others. I too was one of the enraged. However, having had some time to cool from full rolling boil to a mild simmer, I decided to see if what I could glean from the squad.
Before delving into the personnel, I’d like to address the make-up of the squad as a whole. Pivac has chosen a 33-man squad of 19 forwards - two whole pack plus extra front row - and 14 backs - two complete back lines with 3rd choice half backs likely to fill in as wing and full back. Others have pointed out seems too small for a major tour like South Africa and we’re bound to pick up injuries meaning any call up would take the majority of a day to reach camp and another day to acclimatise before they could be considered being brought onto the team.
Here’s my unPropular opinion, Pivac has done this on purpose.
In 2021, World Rugby announced a couple of changes, in the interest of player safety and wellbeing, for the 2023 world cup. Along with guaranteeing a 5-day rest period between matches, they also increased the squad size to, you guessed it, 33 players. Combined with the existing rules that any injury replacement being drafted into the squad must wait 48 hours before being eligible to play, we see some logic in the plan.
Given the physicality of teams like Georgia and Fiji in our pool and our track record of going from full strength to bare bones in a blink of an eye, we need to be able to cope within the resources we have until replacements come in. I can think of no better place than South Africa to test the durability and versatility of the squad.
An example of where the versatility of players will need to be tested starts right at the back with Liam Williams as the only recognised full back in the squad. This leaves the likes of Josh Adams, Gareth Anscombe and Rhys Patchell on standby to cover the back. If we ignore the first option the prospect of one of the two 10s, both of whom have extensive experience at 15, gives us a dual playmaker system that the Welsh attack has needed to take pressure off of the outside half.
Liam Williams is a great full back with many talents, but he isn’t a distributor and organiser of attacks. This would be less of an issue with a playmaking 12 like Owen Farrell for England or 13 like Billy Twelvetrees or Rob du Preez have been deployed for Gloucester and Sale respectively. Pivac has instead gone for more typical “route one” players in Tompkins, Watkin, Johnny Williams, and a returning George North to compensate for a lack of big ball carriers in the forwards to help share the burden.
Moving onto the forwards, it’s time to address the elephant in the room; the back row. Always a hot topic in Welsh rugby and this squad is no exception. Many supporters have complained about Dan Lydiate’s inclusion at the expense of the excellent Jac Morgan. Personally, I believe this is unfair, Lydiate is an out and out 6, so realistically he is in to take the spot of the injured Ross Moriarty. If anyone should feel hard done by it’s the likes of the imperious Will Griffiths or more likely Seb Davies who featured heavily in the 6 nations at blindside after Moriarty’s injury.
Pivac said after his Six Nations squad announcement, that he was viewing Jac Morgan and, first-time squad call up, Tommy Reffell as competing for the same spot in the squad. During the press conference he said as much that it was a chance for them to look at the Leicester Tiger without having to send him back to England. Had Pivac enforced this this point then moved on, I think the more measured of us would be aggrieved still, but perhaps more understanding. Indefensibly, Pivac carried on and complained about Jac Morgan’s size and work over the ball.
This for me is where I have to question the wisdom I tried to see about his decisions with this squad. At 5’11” and just over 16 stone, Jac Morgan is the same height and over a stone heavier than Boks flanker Kwagga Smith. A player who has no trouble over the ball and is an excellent international player. As for work over the ball, Morgan topped the URC turnover charts with 24 (average of 1.83 per game) he also was second in the tackle charts with 198. Clearly Morgan has the physical side of the game down so that throw away line from Pivac is pure bunk.
Overall, I think no matter who Pivac took to South Africa we’d still be having the same conversations. The likelihood is that this will be a hard tour to watch as a Welsh fan with some unsightly score lines on the cards.
The best we can hope for is that the majority of the squad remain fit throughout and at the very least Pivac can settle on a back row and centre partnership to start developing an attack that suits the players we have, not the players we wish we had.