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Wales Online
Wales Online
Mark Orders

The 16 nailed-on players for Wales’ World Cup squad, the battle for other places and the one real problem position

Brian Clough once told his Nottingham Forest players ahead of a cup final the only person certain of boarding the team coach was a gent named Albert Kershaw, “and he’ll be driving it”.

Nailed-on selections, there were none.

How many places are already locked down in Wales’ Rugby World Cup squad? During the Six Nations, a common observation was that few players were stone-cold definites for Warren Gatland's starting line-up. Team performances were so poor at times it would have been a surprise had the situation been different.

Read more: 'He had his head removed from his shoulders!' Welsh region issue update on battered star amid rough treatment controversy

But Gatland has to start inking in names for his 33-strong panel and there’s a high probability he has already begun to do so even if, barely five months out from the gathering of the rugby world’s best, there are still plenty of places to be claimed.

We take a look.

Back three (5)

There’s a place that already has Liam Williams’ name on it after the Cardiff man impressed during the Six Nations, with his display against Italy, in particular, showcasing what he brings to the table. OK, there had previously been yellow cards, but Williams plays on the edge, with the pluses far outweighing the minuses.

If Josh Adams didn’t exactly rocket into the stratosphere with ball in hand during the championship, Gatland enjoys what he brings in defence and will hope the top try scorer at the 2019 World Cup rediscovers his attacking mojo.

What of Louis Rees-Zammit?

He didn’t score for Gloucester against Newcastle at Kingston Park last weekend but he looked to get on the ball and every time he came into play the home defence had to flick into a state of high alert. The challenge for Wales is to create space for him because his pace will frighten any defence.

If the 22-year-old's defence could improve, the gold he brings as an attacking player should surely be enough for him to be considered as a World Cup certainty.

There’s a case for feeling Rio Dyer should be included in those who have already hammered down places, and the likelihood is he will go after a bright Six Nations, but, there again, the competition is hot for potentially five back-three spots.

Nailed on: Liam Williams, Louis Rees-Zammit, Josh Adams.

Strong contenders: Rio Dyer, Leigh Halfpenny, Alex Cuthbert.

Outsiders: Johnny McNicholl, Tom Rogers.

Centres (4)

If George North being left out of a Wales starting lineup no longer commands back-page headlines of every Welsh newspaper, it is hard to imagine Gatland heading for the World Cup without the experienced Osprey.

North can still be relied upon to keep defences honest with his power, and on a good day he can rate among the best out there.

He can also operate on the wing and versatility is important to coaches when numbers are tight.

Johnny Williams’ form this season has been excellent, with his standout display against a Sharks midfield that included Lukhanyo Am unlikely to be forgotten when the selectors meet, while Joe Hawkins’ ability to cover 10 as well as operate at inside centre may help win him a spot, albeit it’s still hard to say at this point that he’s certain to make the cut.

Nick Tompkins and Owen Watkin could battle it out for potentially the remaining midfield spot, though Keiran Williams’ ability to punch his way across the gain-line might come in handy after Wales’ problems breaking tackles in the Six Nations.

Nailed on: George North.

Strong contenders: Joe Hawkins, Johnny Williams, Mason Grady, Nick Tompkins, Owen Watkin.

Outsiders: Keiran Williams, Max Llewellyn, Joe Roberts.

No.10s (2)

Will Gatland take two or three specialist 10s?

Maybe it will just be two if the versatile Joe Hawkins is picked in the centre.

There again, Owen Williams didn’t hurt his chances during the Six Nations and Sam Costelow quite looked the part with his kicking for the Scarlets against the Sharks.

Nailed on: Dan Biggar, Gareth Anscombe.

Strong contenders: Owen Williams, Rhys Patchell, Sam Costelow.

Outsiders: Sam Davies, Rhys Priestland, Callum Sheedy.

Scrum-halves (3)

It would be a surprise if Rhys Webb were left out after he helped Wales perk up over the final two rounds of the Six Nations, with his self-belief infectious. Rewind to 2005 and an Ospreys player reckoned that Gavin Henson had the same effect on certain team-mates. “He just has this confidence — you just believe in yourself more playing alongside him,” he said.

Tomos Williams can also get ready for another global-tournament stint.

A revitalised Gareth Davies is mounting a strong challenge for the third spot with the Scarlet bang on form, though he’ll still need to get past his regional team-mate Kieran Hardy.

Nailed on: Rhys Webb, Tomos Williams.

Strong contenders: Gareth Davies, Keiran Hardy.

Outsider: Dane Blacker.

Loosehead props (3)

There are four players in contention here but it’s hard to pinpoint one of them as certain to make the trip.

Wales used Wyn Jones as a starter three times in the Six Nations but he found it hard to engage his very best form and was replaced after 45 minutes against France. Gareth Thomas started against Ireland and England but was demoted after both games. Rhys Carre didn’t feature in a run-on side and wasn’t in the matchday squad for the final two matches.

Gatland needs someone to step forward.

Nicky Smith has been to the fore at the Ospreys but Wales seem to have a blindspot over him.

All to play for here, then.

Nailed on: No-one.

Strong contenders: Gareth Thomas, Wyn Jones, Rhys Carre, Nicky Smith.

Outsider: Corey Domachowski.

Hookers (3)

Ken Owens would already have been fancied to make this autumn’s squad even before his effort as skipper during the Six Nations.

Now that’s doubly the case, for the Scarlet led Wales superbly on and off the field while maintaining his own high standards as a player.

Dewi Lake should prepare to travel, too, for he is Welsh rugby’s most physical hooker and his ability to take the ball forward, either as a starter or as a replacement, could prove invaluable.

Three players lead the race for the final hooking spot, with Sam Parry doing his cause no harm with a fine effort in front of Gatland against the Dragons.

Nailed on: Ken Owens, Dewi Lake.

Strong contenders: Ryan Elias, Bradley Roberts, Sam Parry.

Outsider: Scott Baldwin.

Tighthead props (3)

Wales largely relied on Tomas Francis and Dillon Lewis to look after tighthead duties in the Six Nations and the pair didn’t let them down, with the former steady in the scrums and the latter good when appearing off the bench.

Where does Gatland look for his third tighthead?

Leon Brown is a tank-like force with ball in hand, a player who almost unfailingly crosses the gainline. He could have done without a major injury layoff in 2022, mind, and needs a run of games. But his admirers feel his potential is immense.

Tom Botha reaches five years with the Ospreys this summer, so on the surface becomes eligible for Wales. Does he want to play Test rugby for them? Are the selectors interested in asking him the question? We can’t be sure of the answers to those questions at this point, but he is a prop who can scrummage.

Keiron Assiratti and Sam Wainwright have also been making progress.

Nailed on: Tomas Francis, Dillon Lewis.

Strong contenders: Leon Brown.

Outsiders: Tom Botha, Keiron Assiratti, Sam Wainwright, Harri O’Connor.

Locks (4)

Can we say Alun Wyn Jones is nailed on for a fifth World Cup? After his display for the Ospreys against the Dragons last weekend, watched by Warren Gatland, it would be hard to argue against such an idea. It would be a big call to head for France without his experience, leadership and presence. ‘Superhuman’, Dragons team boss Dai Flanagan called him. Coaches tend not to head into World Cups with such individuals left at home.

There are plenty who don’t exactly smother Adam Beard with plaudits, but he was the only Wales player to play in every minute of every game in the Six Nations, with the selectors seeing him as a key forward. On that basis, it seems fair to say he will be in the party heading for France.

Beyond those two, there’s uncertainty. What of the two Japan-based Wales players, Jake Ball and Cory Hill? Has anyone spoken directly to them? Do they want to be considered for a global-tournament campaign? Do they have the form to merit places? And Will Rowlands? Will the 23-cap Racing 92-bound player be available for Wales under the selection rule on exiled players? Also, how bad is the injury setback he has just had?

So many questions.

Young bucks Dafydd Jenkins and Rhys Davies are also firmly in the mix.

Nailed on: Adam Beard, Alun Wyn Jones.

Strong contenders: Dafydd Jenkins, Will Rowlands, Cory Hill, Jake Ball, Rhys Davies.

Outsiders: Ben Carter, Seb Davies.

Back row (6)

Even though Gatland didn’t pick any Welshmen in his post-Six Nations Lions squad of 23, Taulupe Faletau and Justin Tipuric performed consistently and to a high level.

Leaving out Faletau would be akin to the Huns overlooking Attila.

It won’t happen.

Tipuric, too, has experience and quality that will not be bypassed.

Who goes with them remains up in the air. Jac Morgan is likely to be at the head of the queue if he doesn’t experience problems with the ankle he recently underwent surgery on, while Christ Tshiunza can play at lock or in the back row and Aaron Wainwright’s effort against France in the final round of the Six Nations will be remembered.

Tommy Reffell’s breakdown skills are a huge plus, but Ross Moriarty, Morgan Morris and Josh Navidi are all quality players along with Dan Lydiate, the old warrior who many view as a Test animal. Does Lydiate have one more big campaign in him? It’s a question the selectors might ponder.

Nailed on: Taulupe Faletau, Justin Tipuric.

Strong contenders: Jac Morgan, Tommy Reffell, Aaron Wainwright, Christ Tshiunza, Ross Moriarty.

Outsiders: Morgan Morris, Josh Navidi, Dan Lydiate, Taine Basham, Thomas Young, Josh Macleod.


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