By Owain Jones
Six Nations favourites, Wales, will be kicking off their campaign against the heavily unfancied Italians tomorrow, but there is still pressure on all the squad members, RW takes a look at some of the key individuals involved against the Azzurri
Priestland the playmaker
Let’s be clear, the decision to drop Dan Biggar for Rhys Priestland was harsh. Very harsh. That said, it will come as no surprise to those familiar with Warren Gatland’s no-nonsense selection policy – that’s why he’s paid the ‘big bucks’. He’s a known admirer of the talented yet fragile West Walian pivot.
On his game, Priestland is a pleasure to watch, he can spiral 20m passes off both hands, kick long and true and he has the deftest of right boots to dink balls over an onrushing defence. Ultimately, however, he’s been picked for his ability to bring the backline into play. He likes to play flat and with the blunderbuss brothers, Jamie Roberts and Scott Williams, outside him, he’ll be expected to put them into gaps and give Wales precious front-foot ball.
It’s been quite a week for Dan Lydiate, spirited away from the bosom of the Welsh camp in midweek, he returned to Paris to witness the birth of his first child, daughter Lucy on Tuesday, before heading back the following day. His first few months in France have not been without their challenges, with his expensively assembled Racing side in array and concerns over his own form.
With the captain, Sam Warburton rested, yet primed to return to the side at either No 6 or No 7, Lydiate knows he’s under pressure to perform. While Racing have used his 18st bulk more as a ball-carrier, it’s likely Gatland will redeploy him in the leg-chopping role which won him a 2012 Player of the Tournament.
Centres of attention
Jamie Roberts and Jonathan Davies are the most capped centre-pairing in Welsh history and Gatland’s go-to men but with Davies’ pectoral injury a week or so off being ready for national duty, the in-form Scott Williams has to fill the less-familiar 13 role.
Both Williams and Roberts are both natural 12s and while their power and defensive abilities remain unquestioned, their creative skills and vision has been. Whether the pair can add an extra dimension to their skillset will go a long way to deciding who will partner Davies, when he returns.
For many, Justin Tipuric is the most natural openside in Europe and it’s often quoted that he’s one the most skilful players in the Wales squad. Tipuric’s blue scrum cap acts as a human tracking device during play, he is always on the shoulder of the ball carrier in a way reminiscent of All Black great Josh Kronfeld in his pomp.
Admittedly, he is not the destructive openside in the manner of Robshaw and Warburton but his pace, turnover work and footballing skills are paralleled by few. As close friend of Toby Faletau, the quiet men of the Welsh pack are expected to be making a big noise against the Italians tomorrow.
Between them the Wales front row have amassed more than 500 games in an Ospreys shirt, and yet next year, it looks like Adam Jones will be packing down for the Ospreys alone, with Paul James in Bath and Richard Hibbard heading to Gloucester.
However, in a Wales shirt that long-time familiarity can only help and mean the loss of Wales cap centurion, Gethin Jenkins is minimal. What they will lose in the loose, they will gain up-front with James a renowned scrummager taking on the might of Castro and co.