By Rhys Thomas
January 20 2012
After a strong World Cup display, much is expected of the Welsh team, and this is the first glimpse of what is in store for the Six Nations.
The main thing that the popular press will pick up on is the selection of Gavin Henson. The Cardiff Blues player polarises opinion, but Coach Gatland has stuck with him – waiting for the magical player that was last seen circa 2008. His appearances so far for the Blues haven’t set the world alight, but he is back in the fold and that might be just the thing to galvanise Henson. Even now, after all his injury troubles and celebrity sojourns, he still looks like a classy player. He glides across the field of play, nonchalantly throwing out passes, looking like he has all the time in the world. That is the sign of a top-class player – but we haven’t seen him back at his pomp just yet, and if anyone can bring the best out of him - it’s Warren Gatland, who has a history with Shaun Edwards of turning around players at London Wasps.
Much of the squad is as we expected. Aside from the injured players, the nucleus of the Welsh World Cup squad is there, and there are French/English based players in there. This must be a welcome relief for the WRU, who looked like going without some of their top overseas players for the trip to Poland. Lee Byrne is a French-based player who looked like never playing for Wales again, and you have to question the management on picking a guy who will not be around for the next World Cup and have consistently put in poor performances in a Wales shirt over the last few years.
Ashley Beck, Rhys Webb, Liam Williams, Rhodri Jones and Lou Reed are all uncapped players in the squad, although they have all either been mentioned in despatches or had contact with the Welsh set-up before. Beck and Webb have been a breath of fresh air at the Ospreys this season, bringing a spark and panache that the dreary Ospreylian backline badly needed (despite having Shane Williams and Tommy Bowe). Another player, albeit once-capped, is Rhys Gill, the Saracens prop. He has been a regular in the Sarries side, and as they are Champions of England that is no mean feat, and he provides a sturdy back-up to our already aging props.
The real surprise is the selection of Cardiff-born winger Harry Robinson. The youngster has only made three competitive regional appearances, two of which came in the largely developmental LV= Cup. The main reason he is there is his eye-catching performances on the iRB sevens circuit, which has also seen players such as Lloyd Williams and Alex Cuthbert also get their big breaks. The sevens team has clearly been crucial in the development of players for the Senior XV, as it has no hiding spaces, skills like passing – as well as raw pace and fitness – are exposed if you are not up to scratch. Despite this, you can’t help but feel that Robinson isn’t ready. He’s barely played for his region, although he regularly appears for Cardiff RFC. Could he be another Tom Prydie? The once capped youngster has been thrown on the scrapheap after injuries and lack of game-time, and it wouldn’t surprise me to see the same happen to Robinson at one time or another. Let’s certainly hope it ends well for him.
Another huge talking point is who will replace Shane Williams? Many names have been bandied around, but the realistic replacements in the squad are Alex Cuthbert, Leigh Halfpenny and potentially Liam Williams. Realistically, I see Halfpenny and Williams as full-back options, as Lee Byrne won’t be around the Welsh squad for much longer, even if he plays in this tournament. Cuthbert is the frontrunner, winning his first cap against the Australians. He is a speed machine with height and serious power. All of that makes a lethal combination, and although he is practically the opposite of Shane – it could be made to work in the Welsh backline.
The 35-man squad will eventually be trimmed down to 30 for the Six Nations. The obvious bonus to this is the added competition that will result from it. The players will be even more eager to get a place in the final squad, and the Polish trip will surely sort out the men from the boys.
Backs: Mike Phillips (Bayonne), Lloyd Williams (Cardiff Blues), Rhys Webb (Ospreys), Rhys Priestland (Scarlets), James Hook (Perpignan), Jamie Roberts (Cardiff Blues), Jonathan Davies (Scarlets), Scott Williams (Scarlets), Gavin Henson (Cardiff Blues), Ashley Beck (Ospreys), George North (Scarlets), Leigh Halfpenny (Cardiff Blues), Alex Cuthbert (Cardiff Blues), Harry Robinson (Cardiff Blues), Liam Williams (Scarlets), Lee Byrne (Clermont Auvergne)
Forwards: Craig Mitchell (Exeter Chiefs), Adam Jones (Ospreys), Ryan Bevington (Ospreys), Gethin Jenkins (Cardiff Blues), Paul James (Ospreys), Rhys Gill (Saracens), Rhodri Jones (Scarlets), Matthew Rees (Scarlets), Huw Bennett (Ospreys), Ken Owens (Scarlets), Bradley Davies (Cardiff Blues), Ian Evans (Ospreys), Lou Reed (Scarlets), Ryan Jones (Ospreys), Dan Lydiate (Newport Gwent Dragons), Sam Warburton (capt, Cardiff Blues), Justin Tipuric (Ospreys), Toby Faletau (Newport Gwent Dragons), Andy Powell (Sale Sharks)