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Monday, 19 November 2018

World Cup Tryouts: Wales pick a team with an eye on 2019

World Cup Tryouts: Wales pick a team with an eye on 2019

As expected, Warren Gatland has made a lot of changes to the Wales team to play Tonga: 14, in fact. He tends to pick sides like this – essentially a second XV – against the Tier 2 teams in autumn, to add depth to the squad. His previous efforts, helped by the young team that toured over the summer, means this team is probably the strongest "second XV" of this type we've seen.

The desire to add strength to the squad has an added element this year, though, because the world cup is looming and Gatland has his eyes fixed on the prize. All these selections have been made with the world cup squad in mind and that makes them more fun than usual to analyse and speculate around.

Notes on selection

Dan Biggar and Liam Williams are the standout names, both British & Irish Lions, but it's worth noting that both ply their trade outside of Wales and have thus spent less time training with the wider squad. Their selection in this side probably reflects a number of factors, including that, rather than straightforwardly denoting them as second choice in their respective positions. For instance, both add a huge amount of experience to steady this relatively inexperienced team.

Ellis Jenkins captains the team and he is another player who is probably in mind for the first XV. Injury prevented him starting the first game of the autumn and he came off the bench against Australia, performing well. He may well start against South Africa if he has a good game here.

Jake Ball and Tomos Williams are two more who would almost certainly be in the RWC squad if it were announced tomorrow. The rest of this team are playing for their places so this game is a big opportunity for them. It's a young pack but a sizeable one and Gatland will be hoping that the big game experience that Jake Ball has acquired, allied to Jenkins' leadership, will hold them together.

Seb Davies gets yet another game at number eight, despite his regular position being in the second row. It seems clear that the management are hoping he can provide some very helpful versatility to the squad but he struggled last time out. He will be an interesting one to watch.

Wales only took three centres to the last world cup and, injuries permitting, you'd imagine that next time the three will be Jon Davies, Hadleigh Parkes, and Scott Williams. Owen Watkin is versatile, though, and is probably first reserve. Tyler Morgan, of course, went to the last one as an injury call-up. He hasn't really kicked on since then but he is a talented footballer and is well-regarded. A big game from either of them could make things very interesting in this area.

Bench boost

For the second week in a row, the bench is very strong. All the starting players will know that, if they don't go well, there is a very good option waiting to replace them. It's nice to see Rhys Patchell back, given the trouble he has had with concussion this season. It feels like Gareth Anscombe now has the edge in the battle for the 10 jersey so Patchell will be looking to impress off the bench just as much as Biggar will be from the start.

In the past, these games have lacked fluency and we often just eke out a win (Sam Davies’ drop goal against Japan and the front-row shenanigans against Georgia spring to mind). But all these players have some experience now and plenty to fight for so we expect more now. Success means a good performance, not just a result.

Hold the horses
All that said, it's worth remembering something at this point: second string Wales teams (and sometimes not-so-second-string) have demonstrated quite a few times that they are perfectly capable to losing to the Pacific Island nations when they don't take them seriously. Speculating about the RWC squad is all well and good but the players need to be focused on getting the win. Tonga may be 12th in the world rankings but they have plenty of players who can cause trouble.

Of course we want all the players to put their hand up for the world cup. Of course we want to look at the strength of the squad and feel comforted. Of course we want to see an exciting, attacking performance after the gritty, physical displays of the past two weeks. But let's get a win first.

Full team: Jonah Holmes, Liam Williams, Tyler Morgan, Owen Watkin, Steff Evans; Dan Biggar, Tomos Williams; Wyn Jones, Elliot Dee, Leon Brown; Jake Ball, Adam Beard; Aaron Wainwright, Ellis Jenkins, Seb Davies
Replacements: Ryan Elias, Rob Evans, Tomas Francis, Cory Hill, Ross Moriarty, Aled Davies, Rhys Patchell, Josh Adams

Wales v Tonga, Cardiff, Saturday 14.30 GMT

Blog by @rhigarthjones

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