Experience is not everything it would seem, at least in the eyes of Warren Gatland. The Wales coach likes the occasional selection curve ball and hurled his latest with the omission of Adam Jones and James Hook from the squad for the November internationals.
In so doing, he has overlooked 171 caps of experience for the national side and arguably left Wales, with just two No 10s in Dan Biggar and Rhys Priestland, short of midfield creativity ahead of the visits of Australia, Fiji, New Zealand and South Africa to the Millennium Stadium next month.
It would also seem to sound a death knell for the pair’s involvement in next year’s World Cup, although in Hook’s case he has flitted in and out of the international set-up with regularity throughout his career.
Gatland, however, was adamant that both could force their way back into the reckoning in the intervening 11 months. “The door’s not closed to Adam,” said the New Zealander. “It’s important he keeps working on his game and we’ve had that conversation. He looks in reasonable shape physically and the door is not closed on Adam or James Hook moving forward.
“There is an opportunity to look at some young guys and, if there’s an injury, I’m sure he [Jones] can come back with his experience.
“The game continues to move and the way the scrummaging laws have gone has probably dropped the value of tight heads. What’s become paramount is for tight heads to get around the park and we’re looking for more involvement from him around the pitch.”
Jones featured in the first Test of the summer tour to South Africa but was replaced after just half an hour and played no part in a second defeat to the Springboks a week later. A one-time guaranteed Gatland selection for Wales, he also started all three of last year’s British and Irish Lions Tests against Australia under his leadership.
There is, however, no shortage of Lions experience in Gatland’s autumn squad, with captain Sam Warburton, absent from the summer tour because of a shoulder injury, again leading the side, and the likes of Jamie Roberts, Alex Cuthbert, George North and Leigh Halfpenny set to start.
In all, there are 12 players in the squad who played no part in the South Africa touring party, while Scarlets duo, hooker Ken Owens and scrum-half Gareth Davies, are not available for selection because of neck surgery and a knee injury respectively.
The only uncapped player is Ospreys prop Nicky Smith, who has played in every regional fixture this season. “He’s a work in progress and it’s a great opportunity to show his promise,” said Gatland, who has never been shy to throw untried and untested players into the cauldron of international rugby. “He does need some work but he’s playing with some confidence and deserves his first call-up to the senior squad.”
Biggar and Priestland will once again vie for the No 10 jersey, with Biggar the current favourite, while Hook, now at Gloucester and so often an option for Gatland off the bench, is deemed surplus to requirements. “We wanted two 10s,” said Gatland. “It’s always a risk if you’re playing outside Wales.”
Despite that stance, 10 of the squad are based outside the principality including the Racing Métro quartet of Jamie Roberts, Mike Phillips, Dan Lydiate and Luke Charteris, all of whom, bar Charteris, were linked to possible moves back to the Welsh regions just last week.
Roberts and Phillips have since distanced themselves from such a switch but it is thought Lydiate could be on his way back to Wales under a central contract before the opening game against Australia on 8 November.
Gatland claims that the World Cup is at the heart of his selections, and with that in mind Wales need to conquer their demons when it comes to playing southern-hemisphere sides.
Wales have beaten the top three opponents from below the Equator just once during Gatland’s reign and that was all the way back in 2008, against the Wallabies. Once again in the summer they were agonisingly close to a timely victory only for South Africa to convert a late penalty try in a 31-30 win.
Australia should potentially be frail after coach Ewen McKenzie’s sudden resignation in the wake of a 29-28 defeat to New Zealand at the weekend and are expected to be guided by former Leinster and Stade Français coach Michael Cheika.
Gatland warned against the prospect of a wounded Wallaby. “They probably handle adversity better than any nation in the world,” he said. “They’ll thrive on any criticism of them. Having dealt with them for a number of years I think they might make an improvement.”
To play Australia (8 Nov), Fiji (15), New Zealand (22) and South Africa (29), all in Cardiff.
Forwards G Jenkins, P James, N Smith, R Hibbard, E Phillips, S Baldwin, A Jarvis, S Lee, R Jones, A W Jones, J Ball, B Davies, L Charteris, D Lydiate, J King, S Warburton (capt), J Tipuric, D Baker, T Faletau.
Backs M Phillips, R Webb, R Williams, D Biggar, R Priestland, C Allen, J Roberts, J Davies, S Williams, H Amos, A Cuthbert, G North, T Prydie, L Halfpenny, L Williams.Reuse content