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The completely different and much stronger looking Wales team Wayne Pivac will field when Test rugby returns in the autumn

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Wayne Pivac might have prepared for his first Six Nations campaign playing out a few different ways.

A tilt at the title? Of course, you always back yourself to be a contender.

A tough run of reality? Sure, Test rugby is decided by fine margins and it’s easier than you’d think to slide to consecutive defeats.

The Six Nations not being completed due to a global pandemic? Now, Pivac probably didn’t see that one coming.

The reality is, due to the coronavirus, we don’t truly know when Wales will take to the field next.

With certain players’ injury recovery being aided by the lack of action, and others’ club futures up in the air, we can make some educated guesses on what the starting XV might look like when Wales do next hit a ruck in anger.

And it’s very different to the side Pivac has fielded to date, certainly in the back division.

15. Liam Williams

Once again, it’s a shoot-out for the 15 jersey between Liam Williams and Leigh Halfpenny.

Before now, Halfpenny had often won out in that battle, but over the last two years, Williams has had possession of his preferred jersey when fit.

Williams wasn’t fit for the start of the Six Nations, meaning Halfpenny was back in the starting XV after being on the periphery in the World Cup.

Given how Pivac wants to play, it’s fair to assume Williams will reclaim the number .15 jersey when rugby resumes.

14. George North

During the Six Nations, there was plenty of discussion about who should be starting on the wing.

George North, Johnny McNicholl or Louis Rees-Zammitt? That was the question.

North ultimately retained his place and the likelihood is that will still be the case whenever Wales play next.

McNicholl didn’t do enough to displace the Ospreys winger, while Rees-Zammitt, despite public clamour, hasn’t been handed his chance yet.

13. Jonathan Davies

There are few players Wales miss as much as Jonathan Davies when he’s not there.

Defensively, he has a knack of holding the team together – with his reading of the game and the sheer workload he takes on one of the keys to Wales being so aggressive in defence at their best.

Wales’ defensive woes were attributed to Byron Hayward taking over from Shaun Edwards, but Davies’ absence was arguably just as important. When he’s back, he starts.

Jonathan Davies of Wales runs through to score
Jonathan Davies in action during the 2019 World Cup

12. Nick Tompkins

Nick Tompkins was the find of the Six Nations for Pivac, with the Saracens centre impressing on his introduction to Test rugby.

The next time Wales play, Tompkins could be plying his trade in this country – with the Dragons now reportedly leading the chase.

And with Hadleigh Parkes, a man who has given as much to the jersey as you could ask in his 29 caps, set to leave Welsh rugby for a Japanese swansong, Tompkins looks certain to be Wales’ next starting inside centre.

11. Josh Adams

Josh Adams’ rapid rise to one of the deadliest finishers in Test rugby has been remarkable to watch.

So when he limped out against Ireland in Dublin during the Six Nations, it was undoubtedly a blow for Wales.

Having him back fit to play, whenever that may be, is a major positive.

10. Gareth Anscombe

Speaking after the World Cup, Warren Gatland revealed that Gareth Anscombe’s injury was the first time he’d missed a player during his time in charge.

So, to say having the Ospreys playmaker back will be a boost is an understatement.

During the 2019 Six Nations, Wales found an ideal balance of Anscombe as a starter and Dan Biggar, to steal an Eddie Jones phrase, acting as a finisher.

As harsh as it would be on Biggar to be relegated back to the bench, given his talents, Pivac, like Gatland, may well decide that Anscombe starting is the best way to using the two of them in tandem.

9. Rhys Webb

During the Six Nations, it didn’t seem like Wales knew who their best scrum-half was.

Tomos Williams was handed the jersey at the start, with Gareth Davies playing second fiddle and Rhys Webb, back in the set-up after a few years in France, naturally playing catch-up.

By the final team announcement, Williams was dropped from the 23 altogether, while Webb was handed a start for the Scotland match that, ultimately, never went ahead.

Maybe that gives Webb a slight advantage, but honestly, it’s anyone’s guess who wears the nine jersey next.

1. Wyn Jones

Wyn Jones established himself as first-choice throughout the World Cup and it’s hard to see that changing anytime soon – especially as Rob Evans’ stock at Test level has somewhat dropped in the last 12 months.

Moving forward, the man known as ‘Sausage’ will likely retain his starting spot.

2. Ken Owens

Elliot Dee has been the deputy to the Sheriff – Ken Owens – for some time now, but the Six Nations perhaps saw a changing of the guard when it came to second-in-command.

Ryan Elias has emerged as a challenger to Dee and may well be the next cab off the rank after Owens.

Elias now looks the man to replace the 33-year-old Owens, but you doubt the Sheriff has fired his last shot just yet.

3. Tomas Francis

When rugby does return, the reality is that there will likely be a lot of Tests to play.

Tomas Francis will certainly be hoping so. The Exeter prop is 12 caps short of the 60 caps needed to continue playing for Wales while picking up a wage across the border.

He likely would have reached that by the end of his current contract, had rugby not been put on hold. Now he’s facing a tough decision.

But Wales’ scrum did struggle without him and there’s a good chance he’ll start when Wales play next.

Who played instead of him

Wales' scrum struggled during the summer and Tomas Francis has revealed why
Tomas Francis in action for Wales

4. Cory Hill

2019 was a rough year for Cory Hill.

It started with the second-row continuing to establish himself as a leader in the Welsh squad, only for injury to strike – ironically when he was scoring a crucial try against England.

He ended up missing the World Cup and had to wait a year for his next taste of Test rugby.

Jake Ball started in his place and provided the unheralded grunt that Wales needed.

But Hill’s added mobility and ball-handling could be just the sort of lock Pivac wants in his side moving forward.

5. Alun Wyn Jones

A pretty simple one.

Alun Wyn Jones may be getting on in years, but he’s the captain and a talismanic one at that.

He’ll start whenever Wales play next.

6. Josh Navidi

Wales could well have a embarrassment of back-row riches by the time they next play.

Aaron Wainwright and Aaron Shingler would certainly be in contention to start on the blindside when rugby resumes.

But, Wales lacked breakdown presence during the Six Nations so the best option perhaps is Josh Navidi – a man who always punches above his weight at this level.

7. Justin Tipuric

Again, the back-row selection will be tough when rugby resumes.

Ellis Jenkins and James Davies will certainly be further along in their recoveries.

But, wherever they are in their rehab, Justin Tipuric will likely retain his spot in the starting XV after arguably being Wales’ best performer during the Six Nations.

8. Taulupe Faletau

Ross Moriarty has never let Wales down since making his Test debut five years ago, but the prospect of getting Taulupe Faletau back fully fit and performing at Test level is a mouthwatering one.

A combination of Navidi, Tipuric and Faletau could hold the ideal balance of physicality, breakdown nous and carrying threat in wide channels that Pivac will want from his back-row.



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Six Nations Rugby

“Special talent that will win 50 caps” – Sir Clive Woodward’s five biggest underachievers

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Sir Clive Woodward ruled the roost at Twickenham for seven years between 1997 and 2004, forever etching his name into the history books when England won the 2003 Rugby World Cup.

While his tenure will always be remembered fondly as the time that the men in white became the most dominant club in world, won countless Six Nations trophies and had some of the best players in the world, Woodward also called up some duds during his time.

Here are the five biggest underachievers from the Woodward era as the players failed to match the significant hype that was bestowed upon them.

#1. Olly Barkley

  • Caps: 23
  • Position: Fly-half, Centre

The wonderkid won 23 caps for England between 2001 and 2008, and such was his early reputation that he Woodward gave him his England debut before his club bow with Bath. A graceful left-footer able to play at fly-half or inside-centre, Barkley should have been a mainstay in the England midfield after the retirement of Will Greenwood.

The strange thing about Barkley is that it is hard to say where it all went wrong. Although he was never blessed with great pace, the playmaker kicked well from the tee and out of hand, was a fine distributor and hardly a weak player in defence. He is possibly the biggest mystery of English rugby from the 2000s.

After retiring, he revealed that his heart wasn’t always in rugby as he always dreamed of playing football.

CONTINUES ON PAGE TWO




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The other future Wales internationals in Christ Tshiunza’s university team as Welsh scrum-half’s son branded ‘special’

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Christ Tshiunza may have been called into the Wales squad via Exeter University but he isn’t the only Welsh second row in the west of England with a big future.

So believes the university’s head of rugby Keith Fleming, a man who has brought through the likes of Henry Slade, Sam Skinner and Jack Maunder, all of whom have gone on to play international rugby at senior level.

Tshiunza has made it into Wayne Pivac’s Wales squad at the age of just 19.

Alongside him in the second row when Exeter University beat Cardiff University 38-7 on Wednesday – a game which took place an hour after Pivac’s squad unveiling – was Dafydd Jenkins.

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He is the 18-year-old son of former Neath and Swansea No. 8 Hywel Jenkins.

Jenkins senior once featured for Wales in an uncapped match against the USA, and Jenkins junior – a try scorer against Cardiff – is also destined to go far in the game, according to Fleming.

“Dafydd has a lot going for him,” Fleming told WalesOnline.

“Not only is he a capable lineout operator, he also has a good rugby brain and he’s building a harder edge into his game.

“He’s another lighthouse.



Dafydd Jenkins in action for Wales in the U20s Six Nations

“We played him and Chris Tshiunza in the second row against Cardiff University in the week and to have two lads who are 6ft 7in or thereabouts packing down alongside each other gave us quite an engine room.

“We’re all delighted for Chris to make the Wales squad.

“I’d expect Dafydd to go all the way, as well. He’s a very talented boy.”

Jenkins featured in the Ospreys’ academy before heading for the west of England. Like Tshiunza and fellow Wales U20s players Oli Burrows and Dan John, he is on the books of Exeter Chiefs as well as playing for the university.

At 6ft 7in and 17st 11lb, Jenkins packs a physical presence but he is also athletic and good around the field. During the U20s Six Nations in the summer, he averaged close on 12 tackles a game and also showed an appetite for turnovers.

That said, Fleming and his staff are having to encourage the likes of Tshiunza and Jenkins to adjust their tackle techniques to avoid falling foul of the laws.

“It’s becoming tougher and tougher for the big guys,” said Fleming.

“With the tackle laws nowadays, there’s a danger of taller players being penalised for going high, so we are encouraging them to chop tackle.

“We are trying to coach the big fellas to go really low when bringing opponents down.”

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Exeter University’s game with their Cardiff counterparts was their first home BUCS Super Rugby match since February 2020. It was also Tshiunza’s debut in the competition.

Wales see the Whitchurch High School product as a player with immense potential and Fleming is of the same mind.

“He gets better and better every time he goes on the park,” the Devonian star-maker said.

“I tell him to go out there and take every opportunity with both hands.

“He’s already featured for the Chiefs and it was great to see him playing for the university in the week. Getting minutes under his belt will be a big help.

“Chris is a big, physical lad who will give every team he plays for go-forward as his confidence grows.

“He is good in the air and technically very good lineout-wise.

“What’s his best position? The way the game is going, it’s good that he can play at lock and at blindside.

“He’s equally at home in either position.

“I think he’s a hybrid player, though he quite likes playing six, to be honest.

“What I particularly like about him is he’s very coachable. He’s a young guy who takes on board lessons.”

Oli Burrows, meanwhile, is a hooker who doesn’t miss many tackles and has an accurate throwing arm, according to Fleming. At 6ft 2in and 17st 3lb, the Neath product is also a powerful specimen.

But perhaps Fleming lights up most when discussing the fourth Welsh musketeer in the university set-up, 20-year-old Dan John.

The son of former Wales scrum-half Paul John, the back-three man is a blink-and-you’ll-miss-him player, with a background in athletics. He attended Millfield School, alma mater of Gareth Edwards, and also played football for Cardiff City’s academy.

He has played wing, outside centre and full-back in rugby and is a player to watch out for.

“Dan is a special talent,” Fleming said.

“He’s quick but he’s also very deft with what I call ghost runs.

“You see him running into a defensive line and you think nothing much is going to happen, but then, lo and behold, he comes out the other side.



Dan John in action for Wales U19s

“He has great feet and he beats people with his acceleration.

“What’s nice about him is that not only is he super-talented, he’s a great kid, too.”

All appear in safe hands with Fleming.

He presides over a cosmopolitan rugby set-up with players from the likes of England, Scotland and Italy but the Welsh contingent are more than holding their own.

“We have a good crop of players,” Fleming added.

“The pandemic has deprived a lot of them of rugby over the past 18 months but we’re up and running again now and, hopefully, the boys will show what they can do.”



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Pivac looking to keep a lid on Wales’ great expectations

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After a forgettable summer series that was signed off with a turgid performance and defeat against Argentina, his get-out-of-jail-free card was 12 members of his first team out in South Africa with the British & Irish Lions. It means he will approach this demanding autumn series marginally in credit and, listening to him speak at a hastily-arranged press conference this week, his relaxed demeanour suggested that, barring a calamitous run of results, he will be in situ to lead Wales to France 2023.

His predecessor repeatedly filled his autumn by facing the toughest sides on the planet, arguing that it was necessary as a litmus test to where his squad stood, and year after year, the results were hardly awe-inspiring. Gatland chalked up just five autumn victories in his 22 fixtures against New Zealand, Australia and a horribly out-of-sorts South Africa under Allister Coetzee. The bar, then, has been set at a fairly modest height in the expectation of his paymasters, you would think.

As ever in Welsh rugby, the path to contentment is far from smooth. After a tumultuous pandemic where the WRU wrestled itself from the financial abyss, its regions have been left feeling more impoverished and unloved than ever. A lifeline was thrown with a £20million NatWest loan, but it has to be paid back over five years with interest. ‘Mate’s rates’ were not an option and the regions have been forced to trim squads and cut their cloth accordingly.

We need the funding. Without it, it will be a lot tougher for the clubs and the Union to proceed in the way we’d like to.

Wayne Pivac

While the pull of the Welsh jersey has been enough to lure Rhys Priestland, Tomas Francis, Thomas Young and WillGriff John to Wales, the regions suffer in squad depth compared to their friends over the Irish Sea, who can somehow find the financial backing to bring the likes of World Cup winners RG Snyman and Damian de Allende to the provinces. Indeed, when Duane Vermeulen was announced as Ulster’s new signing, the news was met with barely concealed antipathy in certain quarters. The last world class star to ply his trade in Wales was probably Justin Marshall, back in 2007.

The losses by the Ospreys to the Sharks and the Blues to the Bulls were a reality check last weekend, but worse was to come with the 43-13 drubbing handed out to the Scarlets, featuring six of the Wales squad members, by a weakened Munster and put into sharp focus the challenge ahead for Pivac, with the All Blacks just 15 days away.

How can he imbue the belief in his squad to seriously topple the battle-hardened Rugby Championship winners? It is a mental straitjacket from which even David Blaine may struggle to extricate himself.

Wales Tshiunza Exeter
(Photo by Malcolm Couzens/Getty Images)

Pivac is further hampered by a sizeable injury list that has deprived him of Justin Tipuric, Josh Navidi, George North and Leigh Halfpenny from the front line, handy squad players Leon Brown, James Botham and, in all likelihood, Michael Collins, who would surely have taken the ‘Hadleigh Parkes’ route had he not been injured in his second regional game.

First up, against New Zealand, you can add to that list Taulupe Faletau, Louis Rees-Zammit and Dan Biggar, who are prevented from playing because the fixture is outside the agreed Test window. The reason for the game? Simple. To balance the books and Pivac was not hiding from the reason the sell-out game had to be played: “We need the funding. Without it, it will be a lot tougher for the clubs and the Union to proceed in the way we’d like to.”

With this uncertainty as a backdrop, it would take a brave soul to back Wales to break the pattern of losses to the All Blacks that now stretches to 68 years.

Attitudinally, he likes to run into people. He likes to carry hard and knock people over… he brings something that nobody else in the country probably has in terms of his height and athleticism.

Wayne Pivac on Christ Tshiunza

So to those he did select. The headline pick was Christ Tshiunza, a large-limbed 19-year-old from Whitchurch High School. Now at Exeter Chiefs, with barely an hour’s top-tier rugby behind him, the 6ft 6in, 17st 7lb back-five player Pivac says is being looked at as a blindside to compete with the likes of Courtney Lawes, Jamie Ritchie and Tadhg Beirne, who would all have to mind their heads walking through a regulation doorway.

More encouragement was given by his club coach, Rob Baxter, who said: “Attitudinally, he likes to run into people. He likes to carry hard and knock people over.” So far, so promising, but Tshiunza is being viewed more as a project for France 2023 than the here and now, despite Pivac saying that “he brings something that nobody else in the country probably has in terms of his height and athleticism”.

A welcome flex in the contentious 60-cap rule has also been shown by the inclusion of Thomas Young, who it was confirmed is Cardiff-bound in the summer. Consistently one of the Gallagher Premiership’s most accomplished opensides, a start against the All Blacks is not out of the question. Young’s ball-carrying and speed across the turf has seen him preferred to Tommy Reffell in a clear sign that youngster needs to increase his ballast with the ball in hand and is perhaps being hampered by the style of game being played at domestic level. Jac Morgan is another who knows he has to add carrying to a top-drawer defensive game.

Gareth Anscombe
A long-term injury has kept Gareth Anscombe out of a Wales shirt since 2019

One player whose regional form has been noted is Taine Basham, who Pivac commented adds “X-factor to the No7 jersey and is developing the dark arts of the breakdown”. He added: “We’ve invested time in him because we believe he has the power output, the speed and skillset to do well.”

Pulling at the heart strings were the inclusions of Ellis Jenkins and Gareth Anscombe. Both players have spent more than two years out of the game through injury, and while not yet operating at a full lick, their addition is a show of faith in their obvious talents.

While there was elation for some, there was bitter disappointment for a clutch of players. Heading that list was Jonah Holmes, who has been consistently excellent for the Dragons over the past year, scoring 13 tries in 20 appearances. He was overlooked for Johnny McNicholl, whom Pivac described as the “form” player. While a classy operator in attack, McNicholl knows he will have to improve his defence at the top level after being exposed in the 2020 Six Nations. In a press conference full of interesting tid-bits, Pivac also alluded that another back-three contender, Hallam Amos, had been excluded because his medical studies were coming to a head – and within 24 hours, it was announced he would be retiring from the game at 27 to swap a red jersey for a white coat, after 10 years as a professional. Pob lwc to Hallam.

We want to roll up our sleeves, Monday to Saturday, prepare the team how we always have and put on a performance that we’re proud of.

Wayne Pivac

Another player who had been heavily trailed for his classy cameos in the first two URC games was Scott Williams – who left the field with an eye injury against Munster – but with Johnny Williams’ return to fitness he was omitted. Yet the 58-cap centre will take heart from knowing he was very much in the conversation for selection and with one injury in midfield, his opportunity may still come. Along with Anscombe and Jenkins, if he proves his fitness there is no reason why cannot resurrect his Welsh career.

When asked about his aims for the series, the rhetoric being espoused was that this batch of games is an opportunity for fringe players to lay down a marker for inclusion in the squad get-togethers leading to France. Deprived of so many players who carried him to a Six Nations title, expectations are being dialled down publicly. “We want to roll up our sleeves, Monday to Saturday, prepare the team how we always have and put on a performance that we’re proud of,” said Pivac.

Jonah Holmes has scored 13 tries in his 20 appearances for the Dragons and can consider himself unlucky to be ommitted

The Aucklander is gnarled enough to know he will be judged on his results, but he has laid enough caveats that any heavy losses can be explained away and that success will be measured on how his squad develops against the best in the world. Some will wither, while some may find themselves thrust into the spotlight in others’ absence. Squad depth is a concern in certain positions, Pivac accedes, but a bigger issue remains as to who will fill the leadership berth when soon-to-be 35-year-old Ken Owens and 36-year-old Alun Wyn Jones jack it in. The signs are that they maybe nursed to 2023, which is a concern.

One factor that should help buoy Pivac is the return of crowds and Welsh support is renowned for lifting its players from Clark Kents for their regions to Supermen for their country, as Donnacha O’Callaghan so colourfully described it. Several coaches have quipped that the fans are worth 10 points to the home team – and Wales will be hoping for a similar lift in the coming weeks.

The die is cast for an intriguing campaign.



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