Former Welsh captain and survivor of four World Cups, Gareth Thomas, has his say on Warren Gatland’s squad make up and the contentious cuts…
Having turned out on the wing and then full-back for the majority of his 100 Wales, scoring 40 tries in the process, unsurprsingly, Gareth Thomas has plenty to say on the recent Wales squad cuts and composition of Wales’ back-three
The big three calls
“I was away when the Ireland match was on but made sure I watched it. My first impressions were that James Hook and Mike Phillips only got a half each to impress, behind a pack that hadn’t played together. In my view, the best 9 and 10 in the world would struggle to perform in a team getting destroyed up front – they had no platform to play. What’s done is done though and Gats (Warren Gatland) has dropped three players with over 200 caps between them. That’s a lot of experience to lose. Faith has been invested in players who are not proven quanties and Wales will no longer have them as fall-back option. Once they’ve been cut, they’re gone. It’s a huge call.
“I will always be a huge fan of James (Hook). He’s a typical instinctive Welsh fly-half in many ways and likes to play off-the-cuff. That’s been his downfall in many ways because the Welsh team play in a more structured way. Phillips and Richard Hibbard have been great servants to Wales but that’s international rugby in its current state; it’s ruthless. If you don’t get results, you pay the price and they paid for a really, really poor Wales performance. In mitigation, these guys have come back from incredibly tough training camps, and I don’t think they’d spent much time on ball-skills and patterns. For a 9 and 10 that’s very difficult to control a game with that preparation.”
The full-back conundrum
“At full-back, Leigh (Halfpenny) is perfect for the structured-game Wales play. When Liam Williams plays there he changes the dynamic of the team. When you kick deep to him, team-mates want to get back and support him, meaning the wings and centres will have to work harder. He takes risks, like most of the great full-backs. I like his infectious personality, you need those sort of guys in the squad. With Liam every kick, tackle and catch is done at 110 per cent and players will feed off that, especially the young ones. He excites the fans. One worry is if you lose George (North) or Liam (Williams) to injury, there’s a lack of vocal leadership. As senior and as great a player as Penns (Halfpenny) is, he’s not too vocal and you can’t blame him. He has to concentrate on his kicking and has huge pressure on his shoulders.
“You can interchange between Leigh and Liam during the game but it’s difficult because you never really settle. If a player is handed the 15 shirt, you should let them get on with it. Even though modern-day rugby dictates back three players have the skill-sets of full-backs, there are still differences in the structure needed for defence and attack. The biggest concern is getting confused with switching around in game. Liam’s downfall in a way is that he can play on the wing and still bring a lot to the game. If Penns wasn’t as good with the boot and his defence, Liam would be in every time but Penn’s is needed to keeps the scoreboard ticking over. He’ll definitely start there but it depends on tactics and how results go whether he stays there.”
The wide men
“This is interesting. Eli Walker and Hallam Amos both played well. Two players with huge potential but Hallam is slightly more versatile. I like Eli, he’s rapid and a classy player who’s been unlucky with injury. Against Ireland they were hungry for the ball and more elusive than Alex Cuthbert who’s now under real pressure, which is surprising given he’s a Lion with huge experience. If I had to make a choice between one of the three, Hallam may get the final spot. He’s on a central contract which means the management obviously think a huge amount of him and he can play anywhere in the back three.”
Wales need X-Factor
“I’d be disappointed to see Matthew Morgan cast aside. When you look at a World Cup squad, you want balance, and Nipper can play at 10 and 15. What he does have, almost above any other player, is the ability to come off the bench and make a difference. I know (Gareth) Anscombe can play 10, but Morgan is the more dangerous broken-field runner who can make things happen. We all saw what Shane Williams, our third-choice scrum-half in Australia did in 2003!”
How will Wales fare?
“It’s the million dollar question. Deep down, rugby is judged on World Cups these days and if they’re going to say they’ve progressed in the last four years, they’re going to have to do pretty well seeing as last time they reach the semis. Australia have improved hugely in recent months and they will be confident, while England have been played at a consistently high-level in recent years. As for Wales, they prefer to be underdogs, so I’d like to see how the Wales first XV play before making the final call.
If you want to catch ‘Alfie’, An Audience with Gareth Thomas takes place at Portsmouth Town Hall on November 11. For tickets http://www.portsmouthguildhall.org.uk/events/an-audience-with-gareth-thomas.