It would not have been a Warren Gatland squad announcement without the Wales coach sending one of his celebrated “grenades” sailing through the air, but this one exploded in his own backyard rather than anywhere on the English side of the River Severn. Gatland included just two hookers in his 31-man squad for the World Cup, now less than three weeks distant – a move that will leave him dangerously exposed in the event of an injury to either Scott Baldwin or Ken Owens.
Clearly concerned about the orthopaedic situation in the engine room – Luke Charteris, Bradley Davies and, most alarmingly, Alun Wyn Jones all ended Saturday’s excellent victory over Ireland in varying degrees of discomfort – Gatland opted for a full hand of second-row forwards by picking both Jake Ball and Dominic Day, the latter just a single cap into his Test career. Something had to give as a result, and that something was the Cardiff Blues hooker Kristian Dacey, who must have expected a place on the roster.
All the same, Gatland was in high good humour, and took a measure of delight in winding up England, his team’s first serious opponents in the “group of death”, ahead of their own meeting with Ireland at Twickenham this weekend. “I’m looking forward to that game,” he remarked. “Whoever loses will have lost two in a row. Someone is going to be under a little bit of pressure.” Needless to say, the New Zealander would prefer it to be the tournament hosts.
There was much talk, bordering on the envious, of England’s numerical strength. “The depth they have is massive, while we struggle if we pick up two or three injuries in a certain position,” the coach acknowledged. But with characteristic dexterity, he turned the problem on its head by adding: “I’d like to have the luxury of leaving out Luther Burrell [the Northampton centre controversially omitted by England in favour of the inexperienced Sam Burgess]. He’s a quality player who has caused us problems in the past.” It seems Gatland might have made a slightly different call.
“While England have some world-class talent, I think we’re much more settled,” he continued. “They have the problem of deciding who’s going to play and how they want to play. Are they 100 per cent sure of where they’re going? Who are they going to play at half-back and in midfield? What’s the make-up of their back row? It seems they need Geoff Parling to call their line-outs, so who partners him? I think we’re more comfortable with the combinations we have.”
Just to rub it in, Gatland also touched on one of his “hardy annual” subjects by talking up his two open-side flankers, Sam Warburton and Justin Tipuric, both of whom are as good as anyone in Europe. “There are other nations in the northern hemisphere who would like the quality we have in the No 7 position,” he commented, thereby raising the spectre of 2013, when he selected four Welsh loose forwards for the British & Irish Lions tour of Australia while ignoring the likes of Chris Robshaw, the England captain, and Tom Wood, his second in command.
With Wales now lording it above England in the world rankings – the Red Dragons’ victory in Dublin pushed them up a place into fifth, while their great rivals dropped a notch to sixth – Gatland could be excused his bout of mischief-making. But he knows better than anyone that his squad is light in midfield, to the extent that the Lions wing George North may well be pushed into service at No 13, and is shot through with inexperience. The outside backs Hallam Amos and Matthew Morgan, the centre Cory Allen, the scrum-half Gareth Davies, the back-rower James King, the prop Tomas Francis and the aforementioned Day have only 17 caps between them.
And the hooking issue could prove gravely awkward. While Australia, who meet Wales in the group stage, have named only two No 2s, they have indicated that the prop Scott Sio can do a turn in the middle of the front row if required. Wales have no such option, so when the competition starts, they will be one minor injury away from a personnel crisis.
Wales world cup squad
Props Tomas Francis, Paul James, Aaron Jarvis, Gethin Jenkins, Samson Lee.
Hookers Scott Baldwin, Ken Owens.
Locks Jake Ball, Luke Charteris, Dominic Day, Bradley Davies, Alun Wyn Jones.
Back-rowers Taulupe Faletau, James King, Dan Lydiate, Justin Tipuric, Sam Warburton (capt).
Scrum-halves Gareth Davies, Rhys Webb, Lloyd Williams.
Fly-halves Dan Biggar, Matthew Morgan, Rhys Priestland.
Centres Cory Allen, Jamie Roberts, Scott Williams.
Wings Hallam Amos, Alex Cuthbert, George North.
Full-backs Leigh Halfpenny, Liam Williams.