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Wales Online
Wales Online
Ben James

The 80 minutes of 'outstanding' rugby that thrust Owen Williams back into the Wales squad as a No.10 option for Six Nations

Five-and-a-half years ago, there was something of a vacancy in Wales' midfield.

Only for a spell of a couple of games; the short gap between the Welsh careers of Jamie Roberts and Hadleigh Parkes. But in trying to fill that vacancy, Warren Gatland opted for something different.

For two brief matches against Australia and New Zealand, Gatland went away from hammering the gainline and looked at prising it apart with subtlety. So, in 2017, Owen Williams enjoyed a two-game spell at inside centre.

Read more: Today's rugby news as Scotland star faces sack and overlooked Wales player consoled

Fresh from the Lions tour of New Zealand that year where Gatland had employed a 10-12 axis with Johnny Sexton and Owen Farrell, Williams' presence at inside centre hinted at Wales trying to evolve their game. However, the emergence of Parkes sent them down another path - one that ultimately secured them a Grand Slam and took them to number one in the world and another World Cup semi-final.

Now that Williams is back in Gatland's first squad since his return, is there the chance that the brief experiment from half a decade ago could be revived? Well, no.

"I haven't picked him as a 12 just as a 10," said Gatland after naming his Six Nations squad. There you have it.

The inclusion of Joe Hawkins means that Gatland might yet opt for a playmaking 12, but given Hawkins carries hard to the line, picking the 20-year-old still provides a challenge to the gainline from that role. But we won't be seeing Williams in the 12 jersey.

Instead, he'll be challenging Dan Biggar and Rhys Patchell for the fly-half spot. Since joining the Ospreys as injury cover at the start of December, Williams has started four matches for the Swansea side - winning all four.

Given that the first three of those were victories over French champions Montpellier (in France, it should be added), Scarlets and Cardiff, it's perhaps a little surprising that Williams, according to Gatland, wasn't in the mix for selection until the reverse fixture against the Top 14 outfit last Saturday. However, the way he orchestrated the 35-29 win over Montpellier at the Stadium ultimately sealed his place in the squad.

"I thought Saturday night's game between Ospreys and Montpellier was a proper game," added Gatland. "That's where you want your regional teams to be playing at that level and competing at that level all the time.

"I thought the previous week against Leinster they were a little bit unlucky and probably stopped a little bit of line speed defensively but they put themselves in a position to beat Leinster which was encouraging.

"To be honest before that he wasn't in consideration but it was an outstanding performance he gave at 10, and given his experience I don't think we could ignore that especially given the way the team played, and the way he controlled the game.

"It was an easy decision for us."

Ospreys coach Toby Booth has previously spoken about the reliability of international-level players. The main difference between bona fide Test players and club players is the former, by and large, don't make mistakes.

Williams falls into that bracket. As Gatland said, he controlled the game. Nothing too flashy, just the right decisions at the right time.

His kicking game was varied, with one second-half passage seeing him make a late call to Reuben Morgan-Williams to veto a box-kick and put in a cross-field kick on the fly to Keelan Giles. It's a little overcooked, but Giles just about keeps it in play.

A couple of phases later, Williams stuck a delicate chip over the top for Michael Collins to chase. Even though the centre didn't gather the ball cleanly, the Ospreys retained possession and moved down the park.

In terms of playing with ball in hand, Williams didn't do too much out of the ordinary. There was the odd miss-pass that caught the eye, but it's just the basics of timing passes and fixing defenders.

Williams has that ability to drift across defenders while staying square, meaning he can push off to target the opposition's 12 or 13 without disengaging his opposite number. Shortly after those two kicks, Williams delays his pass to Scott Baldwin.

That sucks in outside centre Thomas Darmon to Williams, leaving space outside him, with inside centre Geoffrey Doumayrou having pushed up to Baldwin early - leaving the hooker to dictate the contact against the retreating centre.

It was a similar story for Alex Cuthbert's second try, with Williams taking the ball off a pull-back pass from Collins. From there, he steps towards the inside shoulder of Montpellier's left wing Vincent Rattez.

Inviting that contact forces Rattez to bite and full-back Anthony Bouthier, defending on the edge, has to fly up to meet Justin Tipuric. However, by the time Williams give the pass to Tipuric, it's too late for Bouthier and the openside gets the ball away to Cuthbert to score.

The work of Tipuric, who starts as an inside option to Williams before moving out wide late, does most of the damage, but it's the tidy nuts and bolts stuff from Williams that affords him a little extra space by sucking Rattez in.

There's also the attacking shape of this move. The Ospreys varied how they used Williams as a playmaker on Saturday - hiding him behind a bank of forwards as much as they had him at first-receiver.

However, for this try, they played off 12 and used Williams as the second-receiver. It's something they tended to do off starter plays, with one from a scrum in the first-half allowing Cai Evans to target the edge and make a substantial gain that led to a penalty.

Interestingly, we could see Wales play off 12 more in the near future. New attack coach Alex King has previously worked with Wales, but his last job came at Gloucester.

King and Williams never crossed paths at Kingsholm, with the fly-half leaving just before King arrived at the Premiership club. However, one trait of their attacking blueprint remained constant when Williams and King were there and that was playing off 12.

It's feasible that's a nuance King brings to Gatland's ideology, allowing their fly-halves to pick and choose their moments and take the ball in motion.

Dan Biggar seems nailed on to be Gatland's first-choice fly-half, but Williams could feasibly be on the bench to face Ireland on February 4. That's a prospect that seemed unthinkable a little more than a month ago.

Read more:

The new life of Richard Hibbard, the Wales rugby warrior with a very different career now

Gatland reveals Wales exile may now return and one player changed his mind at last minute

New Slammed Welsh rugby documentary to air next week

Sam Warburton names future Wales captain and says Warren Gatland can stun Ireland

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