WAYNE Pivac goes into his first Six Nations with a dilemma – to stick or twist? It would be easy for the new Wales head coach to play it safe by picking a lot of the same players we saw at the World Cup and in the Six Nations.
Warren Gatland’s success over the last 12 years means it must be tempting to follow his plan, but I think Wayne will – and must – avoid doing that. He has to put his own stamp on things.
We know Wayne wants to play a different style of game to Warren and I also think he will select differently too, although I can’t see him totally ripping up the team and starting again.
There is no need to do that, but I can see him making certain tweaks here and there. The biggest area of interest for me is outside centre. It’s a concern to me how few options Wales have there.
Injuries to Jonathan Davies and Owen Watkin mean the cupboard is pretty bare when it comes to the red 13 shirt. On the face of it that looks worrying, but it could also be a positive in some ways.
Wales play Italy in their first game and that first game is often your hardest in the Six Nations.
Lose and you are immediately up against it, your chances of a Grand Slam are over, and it then becomes very difficult to stay in contention to win the title.
I can’t see Wales losing to Italy. The result might not be totally one-sided, but the Welsh rugby public will want Wayne to immediately hit the ground running as a new coach.
There will be a lot of expectation and an anticipation of the sort of running rugby we saw from Wales in Wayne’s first game against the Barbarians at the end of last year.
That was a totally different kettle of fish to what we can expect in the Six Nations. Wales can make a fast start against Italy and I think how they fare in that game will depend on who plays 13 alongside Hadleigh Parkes at 12.
There are a few options and I would definitely consider making George North the centre of attention to face the Azzurri – if he feels confident and fit enough to take on the role.
Props: Rob Evans, Wyn Jones, Rhys Carre, Leon Brown, Samson Lee, WillGriff John, Dillon Lewis Hookers: Ken Owens, Elliot Dee, Ryan Elias Locks: Alun Wyn Jones (capt), Adam Beard, Jake Ball, Cory Hill Back-row: Aaron Shingler, Aaron Wainwright, Ross Moriarty, Justin Tipuric, Ollie Griffiths, Thomas Young, Taulupe Faletau
Back three: Leigh Halfpenny, Liam Williams, George North, Owen Lane, Josh Adams, Johnny McNicholl, Steff Evans Centres: Hadleigh Parkes, Scott Williams, Owen Williams Outside half: Dan Biggar, Jarrod Evans Scrum-half: Gareth Davies, Tomos Williams, Rhys Webb
Let’s be honest here – there aren’t exactly an abundance of riches in this area. Scott Williams could slot in easily enough. He is a true talent, has plenty of experience and can play both centre roles, but he has also been a part of a struggling Ospreys team this term and has had injury problems.
Ben Thomas at Cardiff Blues looks promising, but it’s a bit too soon for him and he is more of a 12. Owen Williams at Gloucester – who everyone seems to have forgotten – could also be an option and there is Steff Hughes of the Scarlets who is a solid operator. He’s the only player in the Guinness PRO14 to have played every minute so far this season which is a pretty impressive statistic.
Cardiff Blues and Wales backs Owen Lane and Hallam Amos can play centre, but my mind keeps on coming back to North. He has played 13 before for Wales and been solid enough, even if those occasions have been few and far between. I’d plump for him to start there against Italy.
It makes sense to me for a number of reasons, but North must have a conversation with Wayne over this when the camp begins.
So long as he feels capable of doing it, I think North can go well there against Italy. For a while now there have been question marks about George’s form and ability.
My view is they have been a touch harsh as he still scores a lot of tries. What he hasn’t been helped by is injuries. On the 2017 British & Irish Lions tour he suffered a hamstring problem and the same issue ended his World Cup in the semi-final with South Africa.
For a winger like North those sorts of problems are far from ideal.
What George needs right now is his hands on the ball as much as possible. A switch to centre would certainly do that and it could be the perfect opportunity to get him back firing on all cylinders.
I also don’t think Italy will test Wales too much defensively in the wider channels, so George can focus almost entirely on his attacking work. Of course he will have to make his tackles and do the nuts and bolts role of a centre, but he can do that no problem against Italy.
It would be great to see him bag a couple of tries, especially with Wales so well stocked in the back three. Pivac has wings coming out of his ears at the moment with Josh Adams, Steffan Evans, Lane and Johnny McNicholl all likely to be in the squad.
I really like Steffan. When he was dropped from the Scarlets team last season there were lots of questions asked about his form, but he has responded to that brilliantly and he’s on fire at the moment.
What I like about him is he scores all sorts of tries – flashy ones and close-range finishes.
At full-back Leigh Halfpenny is playing some sensational rugby and Liam Williams – hopefully – will be back soon. Hallam is there too.
It’s great news Liam is coming back to the Scarlets from Saracens and could even do so before the season is out. Time will tell if that happens, but I wouldn’t risk him against Italy.
It would be too soon after such a long period of time out.
Leigh starts at full-back for me with Josh and Johnny on the wings. Josh has been on fire since joining Cardiff Blues and he has only continued his form from the World Cup which made him the top try- scorer in Japan.
These guys, along with George, can get Wales firing and off to a fast start against Italy and that’s why – as I mentioned in my column last week – there is no need to rush Louis Rees-Zammit into Test action just yet.