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Wales Online
Wales Online
Ben James

Wales may have one spot left in World Cup backline and it's down to two people

Fifteen months out from the next World Cup, you'd feel fairly confident in naming the Welsh backline that will line up in France.

Of course, nothing is set in stone and things might well change. But were you to suggest Tomos Williams and Dan Biggar would be the half-backs, George North would be wearing the 13 jersey and Josh Adams, Louis Rees-Zammit and Liam Williams were to make up the back-three, you'd hardly be shouted down.

Perhaps the one position in the backline where you might be a little stuck would be that pesky 12 jersey. For a while, the position was one of the first on the team-sheet to be filled.

Read more: Welsh rugby winners and losers as forgotten Wales wing steps out of shadows and Wayne Pivac endures sobering weekend

Jamie Roberts and then Hadleigh Parkes had their name scribbled in ink for the best part of a decade under Warren Gatland. However, since Parkes headed for Japan two years ago, it has moved around a little more regularly under Wayne Pivac.

Since Parkes vacated the shirt, Nick Tompkins, Owen Watkin, Johnny Williams, Jonathan Davies and Willis Halaholo have all had starts there - to mixed success. That's not been helped by the absence of North for the last 12 Tests - during which time, Pivac has struggled to land on a centre partnership.

The three matches that Davies and North played together in 2021 remains the longest partnership since the start of Pivac's reign. In the last Six Nations, Wales went through four different partnerships.

Granted, injuries played their part, but it's one of 13 different partnerships across 23 matches since Parkes bid Welsh rugby farewell. The question remains though - is Pivac any closer to nailing down his first-choice selection?

Well, it looks like he is a little closer to deciding who will partner North. The man who has worn the 12 jersey alongside North more than any other - Davies - would appear not to be that individual.

Missing out on selection for this summer's tour, despite an upturn in form for the Scarlets recently, it would seem the two-time Lions tourist's days are potentially numbered.

What of Halaholo then? Once again injured for this tour, luck has largely conspired against the Cardiff man since making his debut last year. You sense Pivac has wanted to get a proper look, but we've yet to truly see what Tompkins can bring to Test rugby.

His last involvement, departing early in a defeat to Italy, means, rightly or wrongly, chances might be limited moving forward.

Then there's Watkin. Having been absent from Welsh squads for last year's summer and autumn campaigns, he re-emerged in this year's Six Nations - starting four consecutive matches at outside centre.

However, his last start at inside centre in a Welsh jersey was way back in the autumn of 2020. It feels like the Welsh coaching ticket don't see his future at Test level being one out from fly-half.

So who does it come down to?

Nick Tompkins and Johnny Williams look like the two set to battle it out to partner North this summer. Before now, the pair of them have only played 80 minutes of rugby alongside North in midfield for Wales. Williams started alongside him against Ireland last year, before Tompkins replaced him after just 24 minutes.

By the end of the tour of South Africa, many things might have become a lot clearer - including Pivac's own future were the tour to go south in the way many fear it will. However, the 12 jersey could well be decided, too. Right now, it feels like Tompkins is in the driving seat.

He was the man in possession at the start of the Six Nations and would have likely held on for the duration had he not picked up an injury with Saracens. While association with this year's Six Nations campaign might not be a desirable thing, he's looked the part since being given a run at inside centre.

As for his form with Saracens, it's been pleasing to see the 27-year-old remain a key part of a side wasting no time in getting back to grips with the Gallagher Premiership. There's every chance he'll head to South Africa with a Premiership winners medal in tow.

His latest outing, in a high-scoring thriller against Northampton on Saturday, had all the hallmarks of a Tompkins performance. The lively, almost manic energy of a Duracell bunny, mixed with an eye for a tackle and a knack of finding the scenic route to a linebreak.

Based on those kind of performances, he'll be the man in possession of the jersey out in South Africa and perhaps beyond. A year or two removed from being bulked up a little too much, he's back to the 'child hopped up on sugar' energy that suits the game of an all-action centre looking to get involved as often as possible.

If Pivac and Stephen Jones are to remove the backline of their dependence on Dan Biggar as first-receiver, that could be a crucial thing to lean on. If you look at where Wales' attack has fallen down over the last few years, it's perhaps because their backline is getting caught between a few different patterns of play.

At times, they look keen to move into a more sophisticated attacking system where they're playing with a bank of two options - one pod of forwards close to the gainline, with another pod and a distributor behind in case they go out the back.

However, all too often, as was the case against France, the pods are disconnected. Rarely are Wales set up in a position where that pull-back pass can be thrown. So the front pod carries. Then the next pod becomes the front pod.

Rinse and repeat, all while the fly-half becomes the focal point at virtually every phase. It's very hard to break down defences while the options increasingly shrink around your playmaker.

Having someone like Tompkins willing to step in and take pressure off Biggar, as he does Farrell at Saracens, is crucial - otherwise things break down over multiple phases as the team lose shape. We've seen that countless times in recent years and a lack of continuity in midfield has exacerbated it.

Of course, the option at inside centre doesn't need to be a second five-eighth playmaker in the mould of a Owen Williams to fulfil that function. Tompkins is capable of doing it and so too is Scarlets centre Williams.

The weekend just gone certainly showed that. In a standout performance, ended prematurely by an injury which should hopefully not hinder his touring chances, Williams looked the part in midfield - and even as a makeshift fly-half when called upon.

As well as scoring the opening try, it was just another all-round fine performance from the 25-year-old. As you'd expect, he carried strongly - offering the Scarlets a focal point against the physical Stormers, while he managed to get his hands free for a few offloads that put team-mates into space.

Above all, it was just good seeing Williams get a regular run of games. More than anything, that's been the biggest hurdle for the former Newcastle Falcons man.

Having played just twice for the Scarlets before Christmas, he's now started 11 matches since February. It's something he admits has been "so, so big" for his form.

"I don't think I've ever played so many games in a row in my career," he said last week. "It's massive for my confidence.

"I'm going into games with very little anxiety. I feel like I can get on the ball and just play rugby.

"I'm really enjoying this run of games. I feel like I play my best rugby when I'm getting that. It's huge to get a run to know where you're at.

"Knowing where your work-ons are, whether you've been poor in defence or something, having a run of games helps you work out where you're at.

The next challenge is taking that quest for regular rugby and transitioning it to the Test stage, where he's won just five caps. Only two have those have come in succession of one another.

"A run of games at Test rugby is the top, isn't it? You don't have the same luxuries and you have to deserve each cap. Hopefully I can do that.

"It's so competitive with everyone going for the same spot. There's four or five centres going for one spot and it's hard. But that's what drives you to do whatever you can to nail the shirt."

Wales travel to South Africa at their lowest ebb. It's hard to imagine where they quite go next, from a first home defeat to Italy to a three Test series against the world champions in their own backyard. However, some midfield consistency might go a little way to helping things function after a year of chaos.

And on that front, it's beginning to feel like the 12 jersey might become a two-horse race this summer. Amongst everything else that does or doesn't happen on the Highveld and beyond, this little battle could be an interesting watch.

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