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Wales Online
Wales Online
Mark Orders

Warren Gatland's main problem position for Wales Six Nations opener with Ireland and how he solves it

Wales’ starting XV jigsaw for the Six Nations opener against Ireland a week on Saturday is beginning to taking shape, albeit one particular piece may yet cause the head coach to frown more than he would want to.

Who does Warren Gatland slot in at No. 12 for the clash in Cardiff?

It matters. A lot.

The right inside centre can transform a side, offering an extra attacking dimension, particularly if he has footballing skills. He can take pressure off a fly-half and provide insight and an extra pair of eyes. It worked spectacularly for Australia when they had Matt Giteau operating outside Bernard Foley. The gold then wasn’t just confined to the colour of the Wallabies’ shirts.

Read more: Unheralded new prop who's the 'oldest-looking young prop you'll see' becomes the talk of Welsh rugby

There are other ways of doing things, of course. Wales used the hard-running and defence-busting Jamie Roberts during Warren Gatland’s first era to the point where he became arguably their most important player. Remember the verse from what became Wales’ unofficial 2011 World Cup song, Sam Our Captain, a sharply rehashed take on Sloop John B from Mark Berridge and his mates: “Jamie Roberts got a clever mind/ He’ll be a doctor in two years’ time/ He always gets the ball over gainlines..../ They can’t tackle him/ So Wales will win.”

Roberts used his 6ft 4in, 17st 4lb frame to test the resolve of opposition defences. Gainlines were bossed and Wales had go-forward. At his peak, the big man was perfect for the kind of game Wales were playing. You had to go forward to go wide, was Gatland's mantra.

After Roberts, a brief Owen Williams experiment aside, Gatland settled upon Hadleigh Parkes to do the grunt.

Choosing a reliable No. 12 proved beyond Wayne Pivac. Indeed, during his time as Wales coach he used five different inside centres in seven games at one point. Poor Dan Biggar at fly-half could have been forgiven for struggling to remember the names of some of them. The idea of Wales having a 10-12 partnership based on understanding, complementary skills and a unified vision back then was for the birds. It reached the stage where Mark Ring, a man who did have the skills to play at 12, even suggested moving Biggar to inside centre, to at least give the side a kicking option there.

History tells us that Pivac didn’t go down such a road. Of course he didn’t. But at least Ring was trying to come up with a solution to a problem he had identified.

It will be intriguing to see who Gatland and his new attack coach Alex King pick in the role for the game with Ireland.

Nick Tompkins ended up as Pivac's choice. He isn’t a Ring type playmaker, but he has a gargantuan appetite for work and many skills. He can tackle, he competes over the ball, he runs good angles, he counter-rucks.

He has also been schooled in a culture at Saracens that works. When he takes the field for his club, he will expect to win, and usually the north Londoners do win. Having those thought processes matters.

However, is he the hard-running, crash-bang type of centre Gatland preferred on his previous watch, with Jonathan Davies complementing Roberts just outside him.

What of Gatland's other options this time? Keiran Williams may not be the biggest, but on the regional scene this season he has been giving defenders sleepless nights with his ability to carry with the impact of a surface-to-surface missile. He is another unyielding defender as well.

Keiran Williams of Ospreys (© Huw Evans Picture Agency)

He has been looking to develop his game while not moving away from his strong points. Like Tompkins, he isn’t a true footballing 12, but the Ospreys have been winning and he’s been an important part of those successes.

Joe Hawkins is a young player — just 20 — who, as a schoolboy No. 10, does have playmaking ability. The 6ft, 15st 5lb Osprey is also physically robust and can truck the ball up if that is the call. When he made his Wales debut against Australia in November, he played as if to the manner born, aside from one error when he found himself under pressure near his own 22.

Does he have the miles on the clock to start in the Six Nations? The old adage suggests if you’re good enough, you’re old enough. Gatland, though, will study all his three potential 12s in the coming days before settling on one, with the assumption being that he’ll be considering Mason Grady as a 13 alongside George North.

Should we see one more inside-centre option in Owen Williams? Gatland insists that won’t happen. "I haven't picked him as a 12, just as a 10,” the New Zealander said after naming his Six Nations squad.

Williams can tackle, kick, pass and see openings others might be blind to. Potentially, he ticks a lot of boxes to play beyond fly-half.

But he’s playing so well at 10, maybe Gatland sees him as a real challenger there. Whatever, the coach’s decision at inside centre will be interesting.

We must suppose whistling up a 40-year-old country pub owner Gavin Henson — now there’s a man who could do it all as a 12 in his pomp, with a booming boot, solid defence, rugby intelligence and a dash of flair — is not an option, so it’s a question of making the best call out of those who are available.

Jamie Roberts was an absolute shoo-in under Gatland, but selection is subjective and tricky.

Finding the right piece isn’t always easy. We must wish the head coach well in his endeavours.


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