World Cup year is upon us and now the excitement can really be ramped up. For Wales to be genuine challengers in Japan – and I think they can be exactly that – lots of different things need to happen, but the biggest one for me is for some players to go to the next level and evolve from key men or squad figures into genuine world-class operators.
What must excite Warren Gatland is that he has a number of players who can do just that.
I’ve picked five men who can be stars for Wales in 2019 and they are James Davies, Josh Adams, Tomos Williams, Gareth Anscombe and Adam Beard.
When Warren sits down and looks at his squad, he’ll know guys like Ken Owens, Alun Wyn Jones, Taulupe Faletau, Jonathan Davies, George North, Liam Williams and Leigh Halfpenny will deliver on the big stage. We all know what they can do because they’ve been there before.
What will help Warren no end is for those guys to have genuine support. There are lots of men who still have plenty of growth left to do and the first of those is James.
I don’t think we’ve seen the best of him in a Wales shirt yet and as long as he stays injury free I think he’s got a real part to play in our World Cup shake-up.
James was absolutely outstanding against Argentina in the summer and the awful knee injury Ellis Jenkins suffered against South Africa in November means he will miss the Six Nations. The brutal reality of that is it means someone else has an opportunity to impress and James could be that man. I think his all-court game can be a real asset in Japan.
At the Scarlets this season James has had injuries and the team haven’t been playing as well as in previous years too. That hasn’t helped him. But what he must not forget is that is ball-playing ability – which only Justin Tipuric can match – can be a huge asset to Wales.
Some might say he’s too similar to Justin, but what we need to remember is that in Japan, the World Cup matches will be very, very quick. A lot of the stadiums are indoors, the surfaces will be fast, and if the storms stay away, it will be hot and dry too.
That means quick ball which is what James thrives on. For me he would replace Ellis for the Six Nations from the Autumn squad and hopefully he can replicate his summer form.
At half back, Gareth is now our first-choice fly-half. He still has things to work on in his game, but he must have a run at 10 in the Six Nations as he has earned that chance.
What’s interesting is what happens inside him. It wouldn’t surprise me if Tomos Williams emerges as a real scrum-half challenger to Gareth Davies.
Gareth is a fine player make no mistake. He’s a superb try poacher, has great distribution, and has experience too having played at the last World Cup.
Tomos is young by comparison, but his box kicking has the edge on Gareth’s while he’s also a real livewire around the base. I expect him to emerge as Gareth’s main rival in the 12 months ahead and even challenge for his spot. Gareth will have something to say about that, but when I think about Tomos, the 2018 Challenge Cup final stands out. He was superb then, helping Cardiff Blues to victory. Hopefully he can bring that game to international level.
My final two upcoming stars of 2019 are Josh and Adam. I mention them last, but by no means least because they showed their class in the autumn.
Wales’ first-choice back three is Leigh, George and Liam, but now Josh is the next one in line. He’s ahead of Steffan Evans and Hallam Amos both of whom I rate highly. It’s the same for Adam too with injury worries over Jake Ball and Bradley Davies. He could end up a World Cup starter.
Josh and Adam have been name checked repeatedly by the Wales management and that is significant because believe me, that doesn’t happen often!
What they, and all my other picks must do, is not get too carried away. Each and every member of the Wales squad has stuff to work on, but if I was one of the more established members I’d be working extra hard. Why? Because the next generation is coming and they’re coming quickly!