Warren Gatland picked an extended 47-man training squad for the Rugby World Cup. There were a few suprises and some disappointments...
Wales’ strongest ever World Cup training squad
Wales have named a very strong training squad for the Rugby World Cup. The strength of the squad is evident by the fact that, in reality, there are only are handful of positions genuinely up for grabs on the ‘bus’ – the core of the squad is already a given. Such is the strength of the selection that on first reading many will have run their finger over the selected players with the casual familiarity of a supermarket checkout assistant flicking a barcode scanner over a basic weekly shop. Alun-Wyn Jones, Dan Biggar, Rhys Webb, Liam Williams and Scott Williams are in the form of their careers.
Add to that list Richard Hibbard, Sam Warburton, Taulupe Faletau, Leigh Halfpenny and George North and the strength of squad becomes even clearer. That’s without the inclusion of young players such as Nicky Smith, Samson Lee, Dan Baker and the immensely impressive Hallam Amos, who are some of the most promising young talents in their positions in Europe. The solidity of the core squad has also afforded Gatland the opportunity to select the shimmering Matthew Morgan and wildcard Ross Moriarty – a selection which few saw coming. Make no mistake this is a strong Welsh squad and one which is more than capable of escaping from one of the most competitive groups in the history of the Rugby World Cup.
Hook deservedly gets his chance
James Hook is back in the Welsh squad and his inclusion will undoubtedly stir up the argument regarding whether he is an outside half, full back or centre. But that is entirely the point, after 77 caps we don’t need to have the argument over Hook’s best position – he can play them all. Hook is the Dremel of Welsh rugby. Okay, unlike an actual Dremel multitool he can’t adapt to 15 positions, but the ability to play 10/12/13/15 at international level requires a remarkable skillset that no other Welsh player has.
Blessed with a freakish step, accurate passing (off both hands) solid defence, a much underrated handoff and test level goal kicking, Hook could solve a lot of problems for the Welsh coaching staff. Gatland will have plenty of hammers available to him come September – a Dremel could come in very handy.
The openside queue
No-one likes queuing. Merely lining up for a pint on a Friday night can make you want to go full ‘Anthony Joshua’. I can only imagine what it must be like queuing for a place in Wales’ Rugby World Cup squad as you wait in line behind the impressive Sam Warburton and Justin Tipuric. But wait Josh Navidi and James Davies must. It is a cruel situation that both find themselves in. Navidi and Davies have had fantastic seasons for their regions and have executed some of the finest backrow play in Wales. Both performed to the level where they were awarded player of the season at their respective regions.
Navidi in particular has excelled during the past 10 months despite being part of a Cardiff Blues team who fell way short of their potential. It is also worth remembering that Navidi achieved all of this playing out of position having switched from openside/blindside to number eight. But if Davies and Navidi need any advice they could do worse than talking to Mr. Gatland directly. He would quite genuinely offer a consoling shoulder, having been stuck behind Sean Fitzpatrick during his entire playing career.
Darwin will help pick the final squad
The selection of the final Welsh squad won’t solely be the responsibility of Warren Gatland, Rob Howley and Robin McBryde. There is another, less well publicised, member of the Welsh coaching team who will play an enormous role – his name is Charles Darwin. Darwin’s theory of ‘Survival of the Fittest’ will have as big an impact on the final squad selection. It’s simple, if a player isn’t fit enough, they won’t be going to the World Cup.
Stuart Lancaster has already stated that his team will be the fittest at the World Cup, which will surely only increase Warren’s desire to take his players to the very edge during the summer camps. Gatland’s tactics are often brought into question, but the fitness of his teams never is. After a crippling training programme in Switzerland and Qatar, Mr Gatland and Mr Darwin will have a team as fit as any at the Rubgy World Cup, of that you can be assured.
The most important decision didn’t even involve player selection.
It may seem ludicrous to suggest that the most important decision made regarding the Welsh squad didn’t even involve player selection, but the Aviva Premiership’s decision to allow full player release is arguably of equal importance. The one off deal between England’s top-flight and World Rugby means that Wales have immediate and full access to all ten of their English based players.
It is worth mentioning that this deal doesn’t just apply to Welsh players and extends to all players based in the English Premiership. Both World Rugby and England’s top brass should be congratulated on this deal as it will undoubtedly allow the teams and players concerned to perform at their very best in the game’s showpiece tournament. The only murmurs of discontent may come from the Welsh players themselves as they lament their early release from within a cryotherapy chamber in Poland.