Predictable Wales

As somebody who likes a challenge I thought I’d have a go at predicting what starting XV Warren Gatland would pick for the 6 Nations opener in Cardiff in just under 2 weeks time:
1. Gethin Jenkins
2. Richard Hibbard
3. Samson Lee (although he’s currently injured so Aaron Jarvis could be in)
4. Jake Ball
5. Alun Wyn-Jones
6. Dan Lydiate
7. Sam Warburton
8. Talupe Faletau
9. Rhys Webb
10. Dan Biggar
11. Alex Cuthbert (despite the talk of Liam Williams Gatland’s a stickler for loyalty)
12. Jamie Roberts
13. Jonathan Davies
14. George North
15. Lee Halfpenny
I can’t imagine he’ll stray too far from the starting 15 he’s invested a lot of time and effort in since the last RWC, the interesting thing will be who chooses on the bench. He’s a firm believer that George North can provide cover at Centre and with Halfpenny beginning his International career on the wing I don’t think he’d have any problem shuffling the back 3 if an injury were to occur during the game. England’s approach is difficult to gauge with the number of injuries they suffered during the final round of European games but the inclusion of Nick Easter in the training party suggests Lancaster’s going for a “win now” plan rather than a “plan for the future” mindset (seriously though, how can you not squeeze Maro Itoje in the squad as a wildcard ahead of a 36 year old who hasn’t featured since 2011?). If Lancaster’s going for a bit of instant gratification to satisfy the ever malcontent English rugby press then there’s a solid chance he’ll want to play 10 man rugby and just pick backs who can tackle.
Gatland’s been around the block a few times and if he’s expecting an 80 minute battle in the trenches then I wouldn’t be surprised if he only picked 2 backs on the bench. He’s called Gareth Anscombe into the squad and as he’s said Anscombe can play at 10 of 15 particularly well then I’m expecting him to be on the bench in Cardiff. Scrum half cover is interesting as he selected Gareth Davies who’s hardly played since coming back from injury and Mike Phillips who has struggled to hold down a regular starting sport in Paris for Racing Metro, I’d expect Phillips would be the man for what could be a feisty scrap against a nation who Phillips has defeated 6 times in his career.
The forward replacement’s will be key and with Bradley Davies in the form of his life for Wasps he has to be on the bench, Paul James is also plying his trade in England with a dominant pack in Bath so he’ll definitely keep 22 year old Rob Evans out of the squad. Scott Baldwin will probably be the replacement hooker by virtue of being in 1 piece and involved in the Autumn Internationals, the tight head prop may well be Scott Andrews (who struggles to get a game for his region Cardiff since Adam Jones arrived there, go figure) but if Samson Lee is 100% fit then it’ll probably be Aaron Jarvis who gets more regular regional rugby. There’s not really a recognised number 8 to put on the bench so presumably Gatland would want to Warburton to switch there in the event of an injury to Faletau so there could conceivably 2 flankers on the bench and with James King’s physical presence Gatland may well believe he could provide injury cover at lock as well as providing an option at 8 while Justin Tipuric would be the obvious choice for a specialist open-side. All of this leaves Gatland with a fascinating dilemma, does he pick an outside back (probably Liam Williams if he recovers from injury) or does he bolster the bench with another forward? The temptation to leave the back 3 to rearrange themselves and use Anscombe as an emergency 15 will be pretty strong and with Luke Charteris, who is part of a Racing Metro pack who finished as 1st in Europe, left in the squad I’d be tempted to load up on forwards.

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