The shock omission of flanker Martyn Williams was the main talking point from Monday’s Six Nations squad announcement. But, as the countdown to Wales v England continues, our sports correspondent Richard Morgan asks: can this squad challenge for silverware in the Six Nations and beyond?
Even the most hardened pragmatist must have felt some sympathy for Martyn Williams, left stranded on 98 caps after being omitted from the Wales Six Nations squad. But in the quest for World Cup competitiveness, there’s no place for sentiment.
In fairness, with nine Wales games between now and the RWC opener against South Africa on September 11, there’s still a good chance Martyn will join Gareth ‘Alfie’ Thomas in the Wales 100 caps club. And that’s an honour few would begrudge one of the game’s most enduring and popular stars.
But the Martyn mishap aside, what to make of Gatland’s squad? Well ‘youth’ is the word that most springs to mind. An average age of 26, with just four players aged 30 or more, makes this a depressingly fresh-faced group for those of us encroaching on middle age.
And there’s talent too – Josh Turnbull’s impressed many a seasoned watcher with his recent efforts on the flank for the Scarlets, and Ospreys prop Ryan Bevington could also be a star of the future.
Whether either of them gets a chance against England on February 4th is doubtful, but the Wales coaches do face some interesting selection decisions. With Martin Johnson’s men sure to target a depowered Wales scrum, the selection up front will be crucial.
Gatland could throw in Ospreys tyro Craig Mitchell at tight head, but the more conservative plan would be to switch Paul James, normally a loose-head, to the other side of the scrum (where he’s served Wales solidly before), and deploy John Yapp in his accustomed no. 1 jersey.
There’s also an interesting decision to make in midfield, where competition for places suddenly looks fierce. If Jamie Roberts and Jonathan Davies are paired in the centre, where does that leave James Hook?
Does Gatland pick him at number ten, a position where he’s spent quite a bit of game time recently? Or does he bring him off the bench as a very super sub?
Whatever happens, we look set for a spicy encounter on Friday week, and not just because of the verbal gibes emerging from Wales HQ.
England have injury problems of their own, but hinted at some handsome form in the Autumn. They might just fancy their chances of a first win in Cardiff since 2003. Ever the optimist, though, I’ll take Wales by a score.
Richard’s Wales Team to face England on February 4:
15. Lee Byrne
11. Shane Williams
10. Stephen Jones
9. Mike Phillips
1. John Yapp
2. Matthew Rees (c)
3. Paul James
4. Bradley Davies
5. Alun wyn Jones
6. Dan Lydiate
7. Sam Warburton
8. Andy Powell