Wales’ strongest team and bench to cause an upset against South Africa
Wales are heading to South Africa in a matter of days, where they will take on the world champions on three consecutive weekends. To make things slightly more difficult, it will be the first time fans are allowed back into stadiums for a Springbok match since they won the World Cup three years ago. The matches are going to be lively.
Wales have injury concerns, too, and are rank underdogs in most people’s views but there is still a job to do and if Pivac’s starting XV play to their potential then anything is possible. Here’s my shot at picking a matchday 23 for the opener in Pretoria on July 2. READ MORE: Wales confirm approach for their coach and All Black details dementia
Liam Williams, Louis Rees-Zammit, Josh Adams
For Wales to have a chance in South Africa, this trio needs to fire on every possible cylinder. It involves Williams playing his best rugby for years and Adams coming back from a knee injury like he has never been away. Those two things would be real shots in the dark because Williams has played so little rugby of late and Adams has clearly not had the chance to discover any form.
Rees-Zammit, however, has been resurgent since being dropped by Wales during the Six Nations, so there is little concern over his try-scoring prowess. Wales have to find ways of getting these three in the game because they’re a potent attacking unit.
George North, Nick Tompkins Speaking of potency, North will bring that to the Welsh midfield and it has been lacking in his absence.
Without him, Wales looked very easy to stop at times during the Six Nations. He has the power to go through you and the footwork to go around you. That’s rare and gives defenders too much to think about at times, creating holes for himself and team-mates.
Will have to get up to speed quickly after spending so much time out and only having limited game time since his return. Tompkins’ selection is a case of going with the form horse. Johnny Williams and Owen Watkin could argue their case but the Saracen has had a fine season, culminating in a place in the Gallagher Premiership final last week.
Williams can truck it up and Watkin is solid defensively but Tompkins is probably just that little bit more of an all-rounder.
Dan Biggar, Tomos Williams As captain, Biggar is likely to start the Tests but he is also a very credible option. He’s been in sensational form for Northampton in recent weeks, while Gareth Anscombe – through no fault of his own – has been out of action due to the Ospreys’ season being over.
Biggar has looked at his best when Saints have had quick ball and he’s been dictating play on the run, rather than the static, predictable offering we were served up in the Six Nations. Attack coach Stephen Jones needs to find more ways to get the ball in the No.10s hands on the run. Scrum-half is an interesting one.
It is still right up for grabs, even though Williams has appeared to be the one taking the lead from time to time. It’s still not nailed down but he’s clinging to the jersey, just. There have been fitness concerns but, if he’s fit, then he edges it.
Rhys Carre, Dewi Lake, Tomas Francis
This is where the side really gets interesting and you have to consider how your replacements are going to work against what is a notoriously strong South African bench. Carre finished the season as the form loose-head but he is undoubtedly better in the loose than he is at the set piece. Obviously, the scrum will be a concern but you are better off having him on the field at the same time as the first-choice tight-head.
At least that way the scrum has some chance of holding up. The Cardiff loose-head will also be very important in open play. He can crash over the gainline but has the subtle skills required to link play with the backs.
It is a gamble but the bigger picture is important. There are concerns over how Dillon Lewis will fare at the set piece. Putting him on at the same time as Wyn Jones – Wales’ most effective scrummaging loose-head – could be a shrewd move.
The race for the No.2 jersey is tight and you could go with Lake or Elias without losing too much sleep over it. But Elias is probably the more astute scrummager, so putting him alongside Lewis will also help. Other areas of their game are much of a muchness but Lake is beginning to edge it in terms of how powerful he is in the contact.
Adam Beard, Will Rowlands
The omission of Alun Wyn Jones here will be viewed as contentious and leaving out a character like him is not done lightly. But you’ve got to base it on the evidence presented to you and there wasn’t a lot in his end-of-season performances that commanded his place in the side back. Clearly Pivac agrees that there is at least some doubt, having opted for Biggar as captain.
That being said, what we are not privy to is how Jones has been performing behind closed doors in training, what impact all this doubt over his place in the side has had on him and how he’s responded. This is not to say the great man is finished. But his form leading into this tour has not been sufficient to oust Beard and Rowlands, who was Wales’ best player last season.
You also have to reward Beard’s form and back him, having committed to growing him into a leader in recent years. He is delivering on his promise and has that shirt nailed down now.
Josh Navidi, Taine Basham, Taulupe Faletau Another tough call here.
Reffell can’t be in contention to start the first Test, having rocked up to his first Wales camp late due to the small matter of winning the Premiership with Leicester. But there is a genuine case for starting Dan Lydiate at six with Navidi at seven. Add all the bulk you can and hope to fight fire with fire but I just think Wales need to be slightly more ambitious.
Basham will stay in the physicality battle enough but also sprinkle that extra bit of explosiveness and ball handling ability on top. Wales are going to have to play into space and shift the ball around, which lends itself to the Dragon starting rather than the Osprey. You take that risk knowing that by half time it could have completely backfired, but focusing all your energy on matching the Springboks at their own game, putting all your eggs in that basket, is unlikely to bring success.
Ryan Elias, Wyn Jones, Dillon Lewis, Alun Wyn Jones, James Ratti, Gareth Davies, Gareth Anscombe, Owen Watkin
The front five replacements have really been covered in the above sections but Ratti is the interesting one. Pivac simply has to cap him at some point in this tour and the best chance to do that is probably when Tommy Reffell is not an option. Waiting until the final Test is risky because you put yourself in the position of having to throw him in despite having not won either of the first two games.
Pivac has to find out about Ratti sooner or later and it probably has to be now. Again Lydiate has a claim but if Wales are being overpowered with Basham on the field, then Pivac has the option to move Faletau to six, Navidi to seven and Ratti to eight, which beefs things up a little. Gareth Davies and Kieran Hardy is a bit of a coin flip but experience probably wins out in that one and Anscombe would be a good shout to start having finished the season – albeit weeks ago – in good form.
There is a strong argument for putting Cuthbert in the No.23 jersey but if Wales lose a centre and there isn’t one covering on the bench then it’s a real issue because none of the back three players can really operate in the midfield, unless Pivac wants to try the Adams experiment again.