Rhys Priestland, undisputed lord and master of the outside-half role at the Llanelli-based Scarlets and a live contender for a World Cup spot with Wales, finally confirmed that he will soon be playing his club rugby on the far side of the Severn Bridge – a decision that flies directly in the face of Welsh selection policy as framed by the national coach Warren Gatland and therefore puts his Test future at considerable risk.
This is not his only gamble. By joining Bath – a “world-class organisation”, according to the 27-year-old from Carmarthen – he has landed himself with the Herculean task of relieving George Ford of the No 10 shirt at the Recreation Ground. Given that Ford is a first-choice player for England and also happens to be the son of the man who picks the side at the ultra-ambitious West Country outfit, Priestland, good as he is, might have found life a whole lot easier had he stayed put.
In explaining his move, the Welshman trotted out the well-worn line about “needing a new challenge”, adding that he had been impressed by Bath’s eye-catching brand of attacking rugby. Meanwhile, one of the Premiership club’s senior coaches, Toby Booth, said the signing would generate intense competition.
“Rhys is coming here to be a first-choice 10 and he’s happy to battle it out,” he said. “He and George will push each other along, so it bodes well for us. You need that quality if you’re fighting on two or three fronts. We want to show positive intent.”
Yet one of Priestland’s revered predecessors in the Scarlets shirt, the great Lions outside-half Phil Bennett, had a different take on events. “My friends tell me Rhys has taken a fair amount of stick on social media and I think it’s affected his confidence,” Bennett said in a BBC interview. “Perhaps he’s the type of chap who says: ‘Do I need this, or do I go away to a nice place for two years and just enjoy my rugby?’”
When Priestland crosses the border at season’s end, he may find one of his more celebrated countrymen, Gavin Henson, heading in the opposite direction. Henson joined Bath at the start of last season, but is now a peripheral figure – partly because of injury, partly because of the rich back-line resources available to the coaches at The Rec.
Out of contract this spring, he has been linked with a move to Newport Gwent Dragons, although Bristol are also thought to be interested.
According to Booth, no discussions have been held with the player. “We’ve held back because we want to do right by Gavin,” he said. “He’s been injured since November and hasn’t been able to put his best foot forward.”Reuse content