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Wales Online
Wales Online
Matthew Southcombe

The 32 Wales players fighting for 10 final places in the 2023 Rugby World Cup squad as trials begin

As the start of a new campaign fast approaches, it will not be lost on players what is waiting at the end of a season that essentially never stops.

Sure, there will be the opportunities for the odd break here or there and a short window for downtime when the season ends, but the summer will not be one of rest and recuperation. Players will be whisked into a pre-Rugby World Cup training camp and before they know it the final squad will be heading to France for the Rugby World Cup.

Before then, players have the season to prove their worth to Wayne Pivac, though, in truth, many names will already be written down in pen, not pencil. Pivac has made no secret of his opinion that the time for mass experiments are over. It's thought that one or two unfamiliar faces are in line for a run this autumn but nothing too drastic.

It suggests the Wales boss knows what the bulk of his 33-man squad is going to look like for France 2023.

So then with one year to go and a new season upon us, who is in the driving seat to make the squad, how many players are fighting to fill voids and who is up against it?

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Forwards (19)

Loose-head prop: Wyn Jones, Rhys Carre, Gareth Thomas

One of only two departments in the squad that are currently nailed down, Wales have a very settled loose-head trio. Gareth Thomas impressed in South Africa, carrying the bulk of the load and held his own against the world champions, one of the real positives to come out of the tour.

Rhys Carre is viewed as a hugely exciting prospect and if he has a big year then he could really stake a claim to that No.1 jersey heading into his second World Cup. The Wales management will want to see consistency of scrummaging from him and improvements in his conditioning. His work around the field speaks for itself.

Injuries have seen Wyn Jones' stock slide slightly given how highly regarded he was pre-pandemic but he remains a quality scrummager and Pivac would have no qualms starting him in any situation.

Hooker: Ryan Elias, Dewi Lake (Need 1)

The two hookers acquitted themselves superbly in South Africa this summer and Pivac will be thrilled with how they went. Dewi Lake in particular gets better every time he plays in the Test arena and will be making a serious case to start this season if he can sort his throwing out.

Elias is a dependable operator around the field and his lineout is tighter than Lake's. He also has the edge at the scrum but there is little to choose between them. Should be a tasty one this weekend if the pair go head-to-head in the Scarlets v Ospreys derby.

Tight-head: Tomas Francis, Dillon Lewis (Need 1)

Dillon Lewis proved a lot of people wrong this summer and really held up his end of the bargain on one of the toughest assignments in world rugby. Though he is not yet the finished article, his stock has risen and he deserve some respect for the job he did against the Boks.

Tomas Francis remains the premier tight-head in Wales but does need to keep adding to his game around the field. His work at the set piece and in the tight is first class.

Lock: Adam Beard, Will Rowlands, Alun Wyn Jones (Need 1)

It's tough to shake the feeling that we were witnessing a change of the guard in the summer with Adam Beard and Will Rowlands forming an extremely formidable lock combination.

Both brought a level of physicality and work-rate that will have pleased Pivac and did a good job on a potent Springbok maul.

Don't write former skipper Alun Wyn Jones off though. He'll be on the plane to France and he'll want to be starting.

Back Row: Josh Navidi, Justin Tipuric, Taulupe Faletau (Need 3)

Not a lot to discuss with this three. All quality operators and assured of their place in the World Cup squad. There aren't many players who you would say that about coming off the back of a long injury lay-off but Justin Tipuric is one.

Navidi is the complete package on his day and Faletau is world class. Not a great deal to add with this trio.

Backs (14)

Scrum-half: Tomos Williams, Kieran Hardy, Gareth Davies

Kieran Hardy went very well in the first Test in South Africa but was off the boil in the second which Wales ironically won. It's a story that seems to have followed this jersey since Pivac took over.

The head coach seems desperate for Tomos Williams or Hardy to really grab the jersey and run with it. But just when it looks like one of them is doing that, injury strikes or form dips. Davies seems to have slipped down the pecking order but all is not lost for him if he has a good year.

Fly-half: Dan Biggar, Gareth Anscombe (Need 1)

You don't have to be the sharpest rugby mind on the planet to pick out Biggar and Anscombe as the two nailed-on fly-halves for France.

Both bring slightly different qualities and allow Wales to play in certain ways, which is extremely useful. They're both vastly experienced operators and Anscombe will be buoyed by his contribution in the second Test out in South Africa.

If they both have good years domestically, it'll be fascinating to see what Pivac does because Biggar has captained the side superbly.

Centre: Nick Tompkins, George North (Need 2)

Pivac was keen to go down this road in South Africa and give the two an opportunity to build a partnership, given they are both unfamiliar with each other.

North grew throughout the series, which is to be expected given the length of time he'd been out of the Test arena for. He remains a world-class operator and one of Wales' biggest attacking threats.

Tompkins was erratic at times but largely pretty solid. The volume of kicking meant the summer series largely passed the midfield by but the Saracens man remains a strong option for Wales.

Back Three: Liam Williams, Josh Adams, Louis Rees-Zammit (Need 1)

If you were picking a Welsh back three right now, you'd be picking this. All three are razor sharp in attack.

Williams is maturing all the time and will give you nothing less than total commitment, Josh Adams is the perfect all-rounder, while Rees-Zammit will score tries all afternoon.

There are other parts of his game that remain a work-on but there's every expectation that he'll continue to grow at Gloucester this term. These three can book their seats on the plane.

Fighting for vacancies

Hooker: Ken Owens, Sam Parry, Elliot Dee, Bradley Roberts

Owens is the front runner here but it remains to be seen how he will return from injury. The suggestions are that he is highly-motivated and raring to get stuck back into things at the Scarlets. He'll want 100 caps for his country and another crack at the Rugby World Cup.

Pivac appears a little unconvinced by the other three but they can convince him to give them a shot in the autumn if they start the season well.

Tight-head: Leon Brown, Sam Wainwright

Leon Brown is the clear favourite here and there are hopes that he could develop into a serious force at Test level if he could just stay fit. Wales are thought to be impressed with his all-round package and he fits the physical profile that they're looking for. A run of games this year could really see him tear up the pecking order.

Wainwright has an outside chance of making the squad but will likely need injuries to force his way in.

Lock: Ben Carter, Christ Tshiunza, Daf Jenkins, Seb Davies

It's an extremely interesting battle for the fourth lock spot. The sense is that Christ Tshiunza is on the cusp of making the squad but where he fits in will depend on how Pivac wants to play it.

Five locks feels excessive for a World Cup, so the selection of the Exeter man would make sense given his versatility and ability to play six, which we know Wales want.

Ben Carter doesn't have that level of versatility and Daf Jenkins, though a complete outsider, is highly thought of among the coaching staff. Seb Davies can play in the back-row and at lock but has never really produced at Test level.

Back row: Ross Moriarty, Aaron Wainwright, Jac Morgan, Tommy Reffell, Ellis Jenkins, Thomas Young, James Botham, Shane Lewis-Hughes

There is a lot going on here. You need to stock up on back-rowers because of the nature of the position and Wales will always fill up in this department.

Ross Moriarty will go if he has a good start to the season and the only reason he's in this category is because it remains to be seen how he will return from injury.

Jac Morgan and Tommy Reffell are going to have a right old ding dong this season. Reffell is edging it at the moment but is by no means nailed on, while Aaron Wainwright could once again make himself an attractive proposition with his ability to play six or eight, should he start this year well.

The Cardiff quartet of Ellis Jenkins, Thomas Young, James Botham and Shane Lewis-Hughes are on the outside looking in at this point and will have to have some season to force their way into the reckoning. Not impossible.

Fly-half: Rhys Patchell, Callum Sheedy, Jarrod Evans, Rhys Priestland

The make-up of the squad is interesting here and will dictate what happens in the backline. Pivac will need more cover at full-back and could well go for a fly-half who can play in the back three if required.

That would really lend itself to Rhys Patchell above the others and he's in the driving seat having gone to South Africa this summer. Sheedy, Evans and Priestland have some ground to make up.

Centre: Owen Watkin, Willis Halaholo, Johnny Williams, Jonathan Davies, Ioan Lloyd

Watkin is a very solid operator at the top level but he is yet to really prove himself to be a potent attacking threat, despite how solid he is defensively. For that reason, he can't be nailed on because if two of his peers have a barnstorming year with ball in hand, then he'll slide pretty quickly.

Willis Halaholo has plenty to offer if he can stay fit and Johnny Williams is yet to prove himself with a few technical aspects of his game requiring a bit of work. How he responds in the early part of this season will be fascinating.

Jonathan Davies will be hurting after being left at home this summer but it did offer him a chance to have a full off-season and then a full pre-season, something he hasn't enjoyed in over a decade. It may well have done him the world of good. Keep an eye on he starts the season.

Finally, it is thought that Ioan Lloyd has not been completely discounted, despite being cast aside since making his debut in 2020. HIs versatility is something that can come in handy if he is able to prove that he can impose himself physically at the top level.

Back Three: Alex Cuthbert, Leigh Halfpenny, Johnny McNicholl, Regan Grace, Owen Lane

If Pivac decides to only go with two fly-halves, you'd put Leigh Halfpenny and Alex Cuthbert into the two vacant slots it would leave in the back three. But if he goes with three fly-halves, then it would probably lead to leaving Halfpenny, who is on the verge of returning from injury, at home.

Injury has kept Johnny McNicholl on the periphery of the squad, while Regan Grace is a total wildcard. Owen Lane is a clear weapon at URC level but injuries have scuppered him at Test level to date.

Trying to force a way in

Loose-head: Nicky Smith

Smith's star has waned slightly of late and he's been left on the outside looking in. His face does not appear to fit at the moment but he can make himself impossible to ignore with a strong start to the season.

The loose-head trio is pretty settled and it's up to Smith to upset the apple cart.

Scrum-half: Lloyd Williams, Rhodri Williams, Rhys Webb

Again, Pivac seems pretty content with how things are in the No.9 jersey right now but a bit of form from one of these three might give him something to think about.

Lloyd Williams has caught Pivac's eye already in his tenure as head coach and Rhodri Williams is no mug. It feels as though Rhys Webb has to do something spectacular to earn a Wales recall at this stage but never say never.

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