So just what is the Wales pecking order looking like right now on the back of the tour of South Africa? How are things looking in terms of squad depth for next season with a number of players set to become available again?
Rugby correspondent Simon Thomas surveys the scene and considers what the Welsh team is likely to look like come the start of the autumn campaign.
This is one position where Wales could really do with developing more depth. Liam Williams, now 31, was the only specialist full-back out in South Africa and keeping him fit through to the World Cup will be absolutely vital. Johnny McNicholl will return to offer a seasoned alternative, but he is 32 in September while Leigh Halfpenny will be 34 later this year and is still rehabbing from the horrendous knee injury he suffered 12 months ago.
So what about younger options coming through? Well, there is no doubting the natural talent of Ioan Lloyd, but he has slipped out of the international reckoning somewhat and seems to be focusing more on the centre with Bristol. The Scarlets’ versatile Tom Rogers is one player who could kick on, with Mat Protheroe ever eager to break into the frame, while Cam Winnett showed quick-footed potential for the U20s in the summer series, but he is more one for the 2027 World Cup. For now then, Liam remains very much at the top of the pecking order.
There are three men some distance ahead of the pack here in Louis Rees-Zammit, Josh Adams and Alex Cuthbert. Wayne Pivac clearly likes the physicality and experience the 32-year-old Cuthbert offers. He may well have started the first Test against the Springboks but for a niggle and was then drafted in for the re-match only to damage his shoulder early on. That left Rees-Zammit and Adams as the pair in possession, both showing their pace and predatory finishing during the series.
The likes of Owen Lane and Ryan Conbeer bring clear attacking threat, while McNicholl and Rogers can cover across the back three. Then, of course, there will be much interest in seeing how Regan Grace fares on his switch from league to union. But, for now, there is a trio of front-liners well out in front on the wing, with Cuthbert’s contrasting strengths to be weighed up against the speedsters Rees-Zammit and Adams.
After so much chopping and changing in midfield, you do feel that Pivac has finally settled on his preferred centre pairing in Nick Tompkins and George North. They started all three Tests together in South Africa, which is the kind of consistency of selection we just haven’t seen in that area up to now.
They offer a good balance, with Tompkins’ tenacious defence, his leg-drive on the carry and his handling ability complimented by the athleticism and power of North who had one of his best games in a Welsh jersey in the final Test, causing the Springboks real problems with his ability to beat a man one-on-one in the wide channels, his natural weaponry augmented by a jack-hammer hand-off.
Owen Watkin is currently next in line with his reliability off the bench, with the likes of Willis Halaholo, Johnny Williams, Jonathan Davies and Scott Williams all vying for squad selection, while Joe Hawkins, Aneurin Owen, Max Llewellyn and Mason Grady offer much future promise. But the pecking order now looks firmly established in terms of the starting combination.
The double-act which was employed in the 2019 Grand Slam is now pretty firmly re-established. Then it was Gareth Anscombe who started with Dan Biggar navigating the ship home. Under Pivac, Biggar has been the No. 10 of choice pretty much throughout the Kiwi’s reign and his status is reflected by the captaincy. But now Anscombe is very much back on board after his two years of injury woe and able to take on the role of the match-winning finisher as he memorably proved in Bloemfontein.
As for the pecking order below those two, Rhys Patchell is next in line after his own return to fitness, having moved ahead of Callum Sheedy, Jarrod Evans and Rhys Priestland. What will be fascinating to watch next season is how Sam Costelow continues his promising progress as he vies with Patchell for the playmaking spot at the Scarlets.
As was the case in the centre, we saw some rare continuity at No. 9 in South Africa after the revolving door policy over the past couple of years. Kieran Hardy started all three Tests and had a key role to play in Wales’ strategy with his pinpoint box-kicking. Then you had Tomos Williams entering the fray to add his ball-handling excellence and quick feet as things opened up somewhat. Which player gets the nod in the autumn will tell us much about Wales’ tactical direction of travel.
Hardy and Williams seem to have moved some way clear of Gareth Davies, who wasn’t used on tour and turns 32 in August, although he won’t just lie down and accept a reduced role without putting up a fight, with Rhys Webb and Lloyd Williams fellow thirty-somethings who still have plenty to offer.
Gareth Thomas and Dillon Lewis both put in tremendous shifts on tour, with their work-rate around the field and their scrummaging efforts in the face of arguably the two best front rows in the world. They both really deserve to put their feet up over the next six weeks!
It has been a real breakthrough year for Thomas, who is now leading the loosehead pecking order ahead of Lions Test prop Wyn Jones and Rhys Carre, with Rob Evans and Rhodri Jones no doubt aiming to force their way back into the shake-up as they embark on new careers at the Dragons.
On the tighthead, Tomas Francis may well reclaim the No. 3 jersey when back fit, with the hope being that he can fully recover from his latest head knock. But what is encouraging is the new depth emerging in the position. Lewis offers so much in the loose with his jackaling ability and is now a real seasoned international whose standing has gone up another couple of notches after his heroics in South Africa.
Then you’ve got Sam Wainwright, who stepped up to the plate so impressively off the bench after so little top-flight club rugby, while young Harri O’Connor will have learned a huge amount in camp, with Leon Brown to return to the mix next season.
Wales hit on a combination which worked well on tour, with the solid Ryan Elias starting things off and then Dewi Lake coming on to add real impact as a sub. Lake is such a physical specimen and so effective with ball-in-hand as he showed with that dreamland try in Pretoria when his team were down to 13 men. Jonathan ‘Jiffy’ Davies has predicted he will be the next Wales captain and there are certainly huge hopes around the 23-year-old who will be pushing hard for a starting spot in the autumn.
Then, of course, there is the old warhorse Ken Owens. He will be 36 in January and missed pretty much the whole of last season with a back injury, which is never good for a hooker. But you wouldn’t rule him out forcing his way into the reckoning again ahead of the World Cup, while unused tourist Sam Parry and Dragons duo Elliot Dee and Bradley Roberts will provide further welcome depth.
A bench berth is not something Alun Wyn Jones has been too accustomed with over his illustrious career but that is the current pecking order in the boilerhouse with the form of Will Rowlands and Adam Beard demanding starting status and the great warrior adding all his vast experience and endeavour when called into action. Those three will be the locks leading the way come the autumn.
The question is which younger model will be the one to put pressure on the established crew. It’s going to be a big season for Ben Carter, who will be straining at the leash after being consigned to tackle bag duty in South Africa, while Seb Davies will have a point to prove having been surprisingly omitted from the tour.
As for uncapped contenders, Rhys Davies is a sizeable presence at the Ospreys, while Sean Lonsdale and George Nott will want to make the most of moving over to the Dragons from England. Then we wait to see whether Exeter and Wales U20s duo Dafydd Jenkins and Christ Tshiunza can get enough club rugby to put their hands up.
Dan Lydiate was a man born to play against the Springboks. Halting big bruisers in their tracks has been his career calling card and nowhere is that attribute more required than in South Africa. The way Lydiate took on the confrontational rite of passage and repeatedly knocked the ‘Boks back was crucial to Wales’ competitiveness in the first two Tests and his early departure with a gruesome facial cut was a big loss in the decider. He is now into his 35th year but still delivering the goods and is precisely what Pivac wants from a No. 6, with his physicality and dominant serial tackling.
The hugely versatile Josh Navidi serves as a similarly robust option in defence, as well as bringing clear-out excellence and contesting over the ball. Hopefully Ross Moriarty returns to offer another in-your-face option on the blindside, where Ellis Jenkins has also operated at Test level recently, with Seb Davies and Christ Tshiunza providing hybrid alternatives with an eye on the World Cup squad.
As ever, Pivac will be spoilt for choice here next term and it really depends what you are looking for from your No. 7. You have got jackaling over the ball from the likes of Tommy Reffell, Jac Morgan and Josh Macleod, then there’s the dynamic carrying of Taine Basham and Thomas Young.
If you want someone to deliver quick attacking ruck ball then there are few better than Josh Navidi, with his piano shifting at the breakdown. But what if you are seeking someone blessed with outstanding footballing ability who can act as a crucial link man? Look no further than Justin Tipuric, who will be back in the equation after more than a year out with a shattered scapula.
The list of contenders goes on, with Ellis Jenkins a potent pilferer, James Botham having been in such fine domestic form, Ollie Griffiths such a physical specimen if he can just stay fit and Bristol's Dan Thomas so consistent.
Clearly, Reffell is the man in the possession at present following his sensational arrival on the Test arena in South Africa, with his turnovers complimented by his defence and the classic openside support play which brought him a try in Cape Town. He has earned the right to be ahead in the pecking order come the autumn, with the adaptable Navidi potentially covering off the bench, but it will remain the most competitive position in Welsh rugby.
Taulupe Faletau provided further evidence that class is permanent with his all-round excellence on tour. He simply does everything so well. His efforts were that much more commendable when we learn he was carrying a side strain which forced his last-minute withdrawal from the series decider. Remarkably, he is still only 31 and will be available for all squad duties next term with his move from Bath to Cardiff, so he remains very much at the top of the No. 8 pecking order.
Navidi showed again how he can turn his hand to any role in the back row with his non-stop graft after stepping in for Faletau in Cape Town, and he may well be the man covering that job come the autumn. The still uncapped James Ratti became a bit of a forgotten figure on tour, in a similar experience to the one he went through when part of the Six Nations squad, but he does offer something different as one of the few Welsh forwards consistently able to cross the gain-line. You’ve also got Moriarty’s abrasive edge, with fellow Dragon Aaron Wainwright providing more of an athletic option off the base and Morgan Morris perpetually putting his hand up at the Ospreys.
So, all in all, decent options and depth in most positions, with plenty of competition for squad selection both next season and then heading into the World Cup, which is precisely what Pivac will want.