Power Ranking Welsh Squad on South African Tour
Wales left South Africa with just a midweek win under their belts after a topsy–turvy, two–Test series.
The Springboks took them to the cleaners in the first Test before the Dragons found their roar in Nelspruit and Wales came agonisingly close to their first win on South African turf.
It leaves Warren Gatland’s men searching for consistency in performance that has eluded them since their 2012 Grand Slam season. Gatland now has to find it with a group of players that has remained largely unchanged in the period between World Cups.
One or two younger men are starting to make a case for first-choice status, but the established names are still the ones charged with the job of leading Wales into 2015, where they face a scrap to get out of a group containing England and Australia.
This power ranking takes into account the recent tour and game time accrued, plus the importance of each player to this team in terms of how they fit the Warren Gatland model and how influential they are in making that game plan successful.
Dubbed "Warrenball," in short the Gatland plan is to use big men coming hard and fast onto the ball to blow the opposition out of the way before bringing yet more big men into the game in the second wave, as Sir Clive Woodward explained in the Daily Mail:
The Wales game plan, ‘Warrenball’, is a ferociously abrasive style of rugby. Everybody knows what’s coming but stopping it is a whole other challenge...
Centre Jamie Roberts charges over the gain line off the 1st phase. The ball is then recycled as fast as possible, before a powerful forward then attacks ‘around the corner’. If fly-half Rhys Priestland is playing flat then it is almost impossible to knock Roberts back over the gainline. He weighs more than 17 stone and that impact is huge.
That plan was nonexistent in the first Test but worked well in the second. Let's see how the men asked to executed it shape up after their summer exertions.
31. Scott Baldwin
Baldwin started the midweek game but failed to make enough of an impression to convince his coaches he should usurp Matthew Rees as the replacement hooker in the Test squad.
Ken Owens proved he has what it takes to play at this level, while Richard Hibbard is yet to come back form injury.
Throw Rhodri Jones and Rees into the mix, and the climb to the top looks a long one for Baldwin.
30. Aaron Jarvis
Jarvis got 20 minutes in the second Test as replacement for Samson Lee and coped well in the scrum.
There wasn’t much evidence of his ball-carrying ability in that period, though.
With Lee's suspect temperament and Adam Jones' apparent struggles with the new scrum laws, Jarvis could step up quickly if he does the right things.
29. Cory Allen
Allen started and got on the score sheet in Wales’ midweek game, but it wasn’t enough to earn a place in the matchday squad for either Test.
With Jamie Roberts and Jonathan Davies nailed on as Test centres and Scott Williams a proven stand-in when fit, it’s tough for anyone else to get a look-in unless injury strikes.
28. Steven Shingler
Shingler performed well on his debut in the midweek game, but James Hook’s versatility made the Gloucester-bound man a certainty for the Test-squad bench as a back who can cover 10, 12, 13 and 15.
That's not to say Shingler has little to offer. His deft left-footed chip created a try for the dirt-trackers and will not have gone unappreciated by his coaches.
27. Rhodri Williams
Williams started in the midweek game and underlined his potential since graduating from the U20 age group side last year, but he was firmly behind Gareth Davies as the man to back up Mike Phillips for the test matches.
26. Jake Ball
Played well in the midweek match but was overlooked for the first Test bench.
He did get a spot on the pine for the second Test but only got the last six minutes on the field.
There wasn't much the coaches could have learned about him that they didn't already know, namely that he is an able member of the second row stocks who can perform when asked.
25. Ian Evans
Problems with his move to Toulon, which has now collapsed, meant the Bristol-bound Evans had plenty on his plate as he toured South Africa.
He had not played well in the Welsh Probables vs. Possibles trial match but found some form in the Eastern Kings game and was on the bench for the first Test.
24. Dan Baker
Baker played well in the back row during Wales’ warm-up game and was given a spot on the bench in the second Test when Aaron Shingler disappeared from view and Josh Turnbull was promoted to the starting line-up.
The back row is not an area struggling for class in this Welsh squad, but Baker showed signs that he can add to Gatland’s genuine options. He needs game time at the top level to prove he is in Toby Faletau's class, though.
23. Paul James
James got the last 20 minutes of the first Test and the last six in Nelspruit, and he started the midweek game.
Gethin Jenkins’ form in the Tests keeps him ahead of the Bath man, but James is a reliable, Test-level performer when called upon. Neither man could claim to be the greatest scrummager, mind you.
22. Jordan Williams
Williams was picked for the tour after playing in the trial game, but he has an awful lot of expectation on his shoulders, having been labeled as the new Shane Williams by Wales coach Rob Howley, as reported by WalesOnline.co.uk:
"What a talent,” he raved before adding: “It’s our role to try and get the ball in his hands as often as possible.
“He is Shane Williamsesque in his ability to beat players and he can perform across the back-three."
And although he played well in the midweek side, it wasn’t enough to earn a spot on the bench. There will be lots more to come from a man who starred at last year's Junior World Cup.
21. Matthew Rees
Rees' comeback from cancer to the international stage is one of rugby’s finest stories.
He was on the bench in all three tour matches, coming on as replacement for Ken Owens in both Tests.
A hooker of Rees' experience and know-how is a valuable asset to this Welsh squad.
20. Matthew Morgan
Full-back Morgan was given a run out in the midweek game. He made the bench for the second Test but didn’t get the call.
Perhaps that’s one decision Gatland regrets, given the indiscretion committed by Liam Williams to gift South Africa the game.
Morgan’s star is on the rise in Wales, and he looks more likely to threaten Leigh Halfpenny than any other No. 15.
19. Aaron Shingler
Shingler went from benchwarmer in the midweek game to starting openside in the first Test, but he was part of a pack comprehensively outplayed and outpowered in Durban.
He was dropped from the matchday squad for the second Test.
18. James Hook
Hook piloted the midweek side to victory over the Eastern Province Kings but was only rewarded with a cameo from the bench in the first Test, during which he knocked over a conversion.
He still seems to lack the trust of this management to run a game as a starting No. 10.
17. Gareth Davies
Davies was a real handful for the Boks in the first test when he replaced Mike Phillips.
This cameo came after a try-scoring performance as a replacement in Wales’ warm-up game against the Eastern Province Kings.
Davies may well have cemented himself as next in line for the No. 9 shirt.
16. Adam Jones
Jones went to South Africa as the Lions' tighthead prop and came back as not even the best No. 3 in the Welsh squad, dropping out of the matchday 23 altogether after a torrid 20 minutes against Gurthro Steenkamp in the first Test.
It will be interesting to see if he has enough fire in the belly to react to Gatland’s decision to drop him.
15. Liam Williams
His commitment could not be faulted on this tour, but up against a full-back with magic in his boots like Willie le Roux, Williams looked average.
The shoulder barge that gave away the penalty try to rob Wales of victory in the second Test will haunt him.
If Williams wanted to make it hard for Leigh Halfpenny to get back into the side when fit, he failed on this tour.
14. Dan Biggar
Biggar didn’t have much to work with in the first Test but did what he could do competently enough.
In the second Test he stepped up to the plate defensively but overstepped the mark to receive a yellow card.
A shame he couldn’t have asserted a greater, calmer authority in the dying stages to engineer a more viable drop-goal opportunity.
13. Luke Charteris
Charteris blotted the copybook of an otherwise impressive display with a daft yellow card in the second Test.
His lack of physicality was highlighted in the first Test when the Boks overpowered the Welsh pack, but he remains a reliable source of lineout possession for Wales.
12. Samson Lee
This was Lee’s breakthrough tour. He was called upon to shore up the scrum in place of Adam Jones just 20 minutes into the first Test and got the nod to start the second.
But he has blotted his copybook with a headbutt on Flip van der Merwe that earned him a five-week ban, per BBC Sport, which again raises questions over his temperament.
He was banned for two weeks last October for stamping on Danny Care in a Heineken Cup match.
11. Josh Turnbull
Turnbull is possibly one of the biggest winners of this tour.
He got back into the fold after 18 injury-plagued months and has made the most of the absence of Sam Warburton and Justin Tipuric.
He usurped Aaron Shingler after the first Test and took his chance with both hands in Nelspruit.
His energy and aggression helped even the playing field in terms of power with the Boks, but he has some way to go to match the jackling skills of Warburton.
10. Ken Owens
Owens had his best game in a Welsh shirt in the second Test, topping off a strong ball-carrying display with a deserved try.
He hasn’t got the size or tackling power of Richard Hibbard but is mightily effective with ball in hand.
9. Gethin Jenkins
Solid in the scrum and another impressive seven tackles from Jenkins.
He is still going strong with over 100 caps and comes home from South Africa still first-choice loosehead prop.
8. Dan Lydiate
Lydiate was outstanding in the second Test, getting to the South African runners before they could put their side over the gain line. He made 15 tackles and didn’t miss a single one.
He is key to the Welsh defensive effort against the big Southern Hemisphere sides, stopping them before they can establish momentum.
7. George North
North has not had a vintage summer.
He struggled to get into the game in Nelspruit and could be blamed for missing the tackle on Cornal Hendricks that left Liam Williams with little option but to charge shoulder–first into the wing and cough up that penalty try.
Has the English domestic season taken its toll on the big winger?
He has enough credit in the bank for the coaches to keep the faith.
6. Jonathan Davies
Davies complements Jamie Roberts well with his ability to run lines off the bigger man, but also with the finesse to drift on to passes and take himself outside his defender.
He is the cleverest footballer in the Welsh three quarters, but in defence he didn’t have his finest hour in the second Test in Nelspruit, missing four tackles of seven.
5. Alex Cuthbert
Cuthbert scored a scintillating length-of-the-field try in Wales’ first Test defeat and added another in the second, as well as creating Jamie Roberts’ try with a wonderful break.
At present he seems more capable of involving himself in the game, whatever the situation, than his mate on the left wing, George North.
4. Taulupe Faletau
Faletau regained his very best form in the second test against South Africa with a colossal 18–tackle effort and a huge amount of ball-carrying.
He is another central plank in "Warrenball" as that big lump who can "come round the corner" to punch holes after Jamie Roberts makes the initial salvo.
At his best he can cause havoc in that role, either busting a hole near the ruck or at least getting his hands free round the back of the tackler to feed a supporting player.
3. Mike Phillips
Once again, Phillips proved he can respond to a coach’s instruction and raise his game on the big occasion.
There were suggestions he would be dropped for the second Test in South Africa, but instead Gatland stuck by him and asked him to run more with the ball.
So he did, and Wales poured forward. Phillips can act as an extra back-rower for Wales and put them on the front foot from slow ball at the breakdown.
He returns from South Africa still in possession of the shirt, and you would back him to retain it for one last tilt at the World Cup.
2. Jamie Roberts
Roberts remains the key weapon in the Welsh game plan and proved it in the second Test in South Africa, picking a simple, straight line to score his try and occupying the Springbok defence all afternoon as the go-to ball-carrier off first phase.
The South Africans tackle big men for breakfast, lunch and dinner, but it still takes more than one man to stop Roberts breaking the gain line, and with the right delivery he can put the Welsh plan into action more effectively than anyone else.
1. Alun Wyn Jones
Jones has become the rock around which this Welsh team is built. Assuming the captaincy in Sam Warburton’s absence, Jones should really have the job full-time.
He is far less injury-prone than the openside flanker, and his form is more consistent. In South Africa, he showed his ability not only to rally a beaten group of players for the second Test but to deliver a world-class performance with a massive shift of ball-carrying and tackling.
Welsh legend Barry John agrees, per WalesOnline:
"Alun Wyn now has to be No.1 as Welsh captain and I am sure Sam will accept that,” said John, in the wake of the heart-breaking 31-30 defeat to South Africa at Nelspruit.
“He did it in the heat of battle with the Lions in the final rubber as they clinched that series and was immense against the Springboks.
“I thought he led by example and the way he approached referee Steve Walsh to question decisions was a wonderful example to any aspiring captains.
“Alun Wyn was already a proven leader with the Ospreys and those inspirational attributes were clear for all to see at Mbombela Stadium.
“I’m not decrying the captaincy of Sam but his record shows he misses a number of matches most seasons because of the number of injuries he seems to pick up.
“In comparison, Alun Wyn seems virtually indestructible and appointing him for next term should bring stability to the position."