Ireland versus Wales is now under a week away. Ireland comes into this game undefeated so far in the 6 Nations Championship after 2 games. You read and hear many people talking about the 17th March being the Grand Slam Decider between England and Ireland, can Wales ruin that potential deciding game?
Wales off the back of the defeat last weekend against England have a few selectional decisions to make, in my view, the biggest is deciding on who starts in the back three. Wales were dominated aerially against England, Ireland with Conor Murray and Johnny Sexton in their ranks will look to test the Welsh wingers and fullback with their very accurate and intelligent kicking skills, be it by a box kick, a grubber kick, a garryowen or a cross kick. The kicking game for Ireland is not the only concern they have strike runners of real quality in Rob Kearney, Bundee Aki, Keith Earls and Jacob Stockdale, so defence is important as is when Wales have the opportunity to attack, need players who play with intelligence. This article looks at the contenders and who I would select for this tough encounter in Dublin on Saturday, starting with the starting back three last weekend.
Gareth Anscombe – The Cardiff Blues back has played a lot at 15 in Super Rugby in New Zealand and has had a number of outings there for Cardiff Blues, however, his best position is at 10, where he moved to later in the game last Saturday and when the game opened up with tired legs he showed his ability with ball in hand, to spot mismatches to make a break on his own, or take it up to the line and offload to teammates in a better position. At fullback aerially he is decent but not outstanding, he seems to lack total belief at times and often goes up in the air side on, so if he doesn’t take the ball cleanly he is going to knock the ball backwards, instead of running onto the ball front on, full of belief and confidence that not only will he claim the kick but when he lands he is moving with momentum in his favour to make a break or give a positive offload. His tackling game is decent but as the last line of defence can be inconsistent at times.
Verdict I would not start him at 15 on Saturday, but I would have him in the 23, coming off the bench as and when required to look to take on a similar to the role he took against England in the last 20 minutes, coming in at 10.
Josh Adams – The Worcester winger has seen very little of the ball in hand, but has not looked out of place in international rugby and can be pleased with his efforts. Watching him play in Premiership Rugby this season you can see what a try threat he is, but just not had the opportunities. Defensively, has positioned himself well a number of times and made some man and ball tackles in a few dangerous situations. Was caught out for the first try against England last weekend when caught infield looking to support in centre field on the initial aerial kick. But normally a winger would not have been so cruelly caught out if not for the vision and execution of the kick by Owen Farrell.
Verdict Slightly harsh on the young man but you have to go with who you believe is the right players/combination for the tough challenge coming up. Adams has the ability to play international rugby as he has shown and Wales will be delighted they have another player who can play at this level. But for Saturday, would not make my matchday squad.
Steff Evans – Has come back after a tough baptism during the Autumn Internationals, and has sprung up a number of times off his wing at first or second receiver and with his quick feet is dangerous to the opposition especially if with quick ball and the defence not set correctly, being caught with a forward in front of him. Defensively, has been pretty solid but no doubt if selected, Ireland will want to test him, especially aerially, as he has been known to make a few poor decisions with aerial challenges, one being in Dublin at the RDS last year. Big decision for Gatland to make with this player for Saturday. A definite threat in attack as his great finish against Scotland in the first round of games showed in this tournament, but defensively, could he be found out?
Verdict Left wing you have a number of options, with other players now being available after coming back from injury. But I would keep with Evans for this one, he does offer Wales a real threat not just out wide but in centre field when comes into the backline off phase ball, and defensively he is improving, and I would keep faith with the West Wales man.
Leigh Halfpenny – His late withdrawal last weekend defensively had a major impact on Wales. Halfpenny is outstanding under the high ball, you always feel more often than not he will take the aerial kick cleanly. His positional play is also outstanding. Against Scotland he also scored 2 tries, getting himself into back play and must be full of confidence. Obviously as well his goal kicking is vital and with Dan Biggar almost certainly not being available on Saturday, Halfpenny’s return has to happen in my opinion.
Verdict Back into the starting side and I would start him at 14, a position he has not played for a while. Has the nous and experience to play the role well. Defensively has the skills to deal with the kicks that could come his way, and also the experience and tackling ability to stop a winger full of confidence as Jacob Stockdale will be after his 2 tries last weekend against Italy. Halfpenny given the opportunity will test the young winger’s defensive abilities as well and Halfpenny’s place-kicking will keep the scoreboard ticking over if Ireland gives him the chances.
Liam Williams – Saracens back player has only just returned from injury and maybe in the 2 previous rounds, Gatland felt needed a bit more game time to be ready for international rugby. Last Friday “Sanjay” starred for Saracens against Newcastle and scored a fine try and looked very sharp. We know how good a counter attacker the player is if any loose kicks in broken play and also has a strong game under aerial attack. Has to be a strong contender to start, or at the very least be on the bench as covers all back three positions.
Verdict I would start him at fullback this Saturday. Is such a threat with ball in hand and can make defenders miss with consummate ease. His defensive skills are strong and a good tackler, sometimes can be ill-disciplined and fly out of the defensive line, where if it comes off and takes man and ball and looks great but timing slightly off can look very poor. Gives Wales another strike runner option so makes my side.
Rhys Patchell – Last two games have started at 10 but many feels can offer Wales more at 15. Is different in his playing style in this position than say, Liam Williams, where Williams is a counter-attacking threat as an individual by cutting through defences with his running ability, Patchell is more of a second playmaker option where he frees others into space with his vision and passing ability. Defensively is a decent tackler but under the high ball is similar in his technique to Gareth Anscombe, does not give you the total confidence of what the outcome will be. In attack, the thought of him playing as a second receiver option in the backline is an attractive proposition and may give him a bit more time than he got against England one position out. Anyone who has read my articles in the past knows how much I have wanted to see Patchell given a go at 12, where I feel he has the tools to be a real star for Wales with the brand of rugby they are looking to play, but with Biggar out (Wales are saying he is available, but after not playing last weekend or for quite a while be very surprised if makes the 23) and the players who are available then I would hold off this move for the time being.
Verdict Deserves the third start at 10 especially if Biggar is not in the right shape for this game and with Halfpenny back available, the pressure of being the first choice placekicker is taken away from him. Allow Patchell to steer the ship at 10 and if a change is needed Gareth Anscombe to come on to inject some attacking impetus.
George North – The giant winger came off the bench against England and looked dangerous and eager for the ball. Hopefully, he is now over a spate of injuries he has suffered and is keen to reignite his Welsh career. Played for Northampton on Saturday on the right wing against London Irish, and scored a try. However, his defensive limitations at times were exposed again when he was turned around and tried to shepherd a ball over the dead ball line but was not alert enough to the danger with Alex Lewington nipping in to score. North when turned around with kicks can be found out both with grubber kicks and aerial kicks, he is not a natural footballer, and jumping for a high ball he struggles with as he does with his kicking game. North is a strike runner who when he has the ball a real danger to the opposition with his size and ability to beat a player.
Verdict I would not start him in the back three as I feel others are either in better form or better suited for this game, however, I would be tempted to start him at 13. Wales have two talented footballers in Hadleigh Parkes and Scott Williams currently occupying the centre positions, both have been excellent in defence but we had not made many breaks in that area, with Robbie Henshaw out injured, which is a big blow for Ireland, you could well see Bundee Aki moving out to the 13 position or Chris Farrell coming in to play outside Aki. I would use this opportunity to release North at 13, test the Irish centres and I would expect North to give Wales go forward ball even if slow ball. I am bit concerned with his inexperience at centre but I would try it and have Scott Williams on the bench as a replacement if required.
Hallam Amos – Similarly to North and Liam Williams, Amos has just returned from injury but has returned with a bang, starting at fullback for the Dragons he has shown his footballing skills and his ability to make a clean break. Seems a different player this season to last, and is playing with real confidence. Good under the high ball as well and a good kicking game, if Gatland decided to select him would not let anyone down.
Verdict In my view a really strong contender for the left wing shirt, but after a lot of thought I have just swayed towards Steff Evans for the battle against the Emerald Isles, but Amos is a player who Wales will have available to them hopefully for many years to come. So there you have it, my back three for next weekend is Liam Williams, Leigh Halfpenny and Steff Evans, a mixture of defensive strength, good footballers and given the opportunity players who can cause Ireland a number of headaches in defence. Do you agree or disagree with my selections? Please let me know, would love to hear your views.