Rugby World Cup: Winners and losers from Wales’ training squad
Warren Gatland has named a 54-player preliminary training squad for Rugby World Cup 2023, and despite the Wales head coach keeping his options open, there are still plenty of talking points.
Planet Rugby runs through some of those and picks out the winners and losers.
Simply put, they are a step closer to making the final 33-man squad for the Rugby World Cup in France, which in itself is a feat.
There are several first-time call-ups while others will be preparing for their final Rugby World Cup. For every player, it is different, but overall, this is effectively the 54 best players in Wales at this time, according to Gatland and his staff, and to be in that bracket is an achievement.
A selection that took many by surprise as Gatland called up the Montpellier tighthead prop, who played seven times for England between 2013 and 2014.
Thomas qualifies for Wales through his Welsh father and has completed World Rugby’s stand-down period of three years to represent another country.
Although he was not on many pundits’ or fans’ radar, it is an astute bit of business from the Welsh coaching staff as Thomas is a strong scrummager and adds something a bit different to the front-row with his experience in the Premiership and Top 14.
The biggest winner from Joe Hawkins’ omission – more on that later – with Llewellyn a copy and paste from the Gatland guide of inside centres.
He is an abrasive ball carrier with the playmaking abilities to enjoy a lengthy Test career in the Welsh midfield.
The Gloucester-bound 24-year-old has shot up the pecking order and is in a good place to claim the number 12 jumper for the tournament.
Nicknamed ‘Skinny Bill Williams’, Llewellyn is undoubtedly someone to keep an eye on in 2023.
Will Davies-King, Corey Domachowski and Keiron Assiratti
Although it may not always seem like it, but Gatland is a head coach that rewards good form, and the Cardiff trio serve as proof.
The Wales boss has cast a wide net, inviting 13 front-rowers and nine props to the training squad, and the Cardiff collective have played their way into that bracket.
The coaching team is looking for ‘mobility’ in their front-row, which has led to the shake-up, and with Dillon Lewis and Rhys Carre often finding themselves on the bench at Cardiff, the newly selected trio can certainly stake their claims for a spot on the short flight to France.
Staying with the front-rowers and Scarlets loosehead, Mathias, has claimed a well-deserved call-up.
A lot has been made of Wyn Jones’ omission, but Mathias has been starting regularly for his region and has stepped up when the British and Irish Lion has been sidelined.
It was a really profitable squad announcement for the props, with Ospreys’ form loosehead Smith finally getting his recall.
He has been in career-best form for the Welsh region, and some wondered why the selectors were ignoring him.
Now that he has his foot in the door, can he cement his place?
The change to 25-Test cap rule for overseas-based players opened the door for Hill to return to the red jersey.
A regular for Gatland in the build-up to the 2019 Rugby World Cup, Hill also shone under Wayne Pivac before joining the Canon Eagles in Japan.
The 31-year-old automatically boosts Wales’ lock stocks and, with the chance of representing his country at the World Cup up for grabs, expect Hill to return with a bang.
Injuries to Scott Williams and Jonathan Davies meant that Roberts had an extended run in the starting line-up for the Scarlets this season.
The 23-year-old took his opportunity with both hands and, with the current outside centre stocks in Wales slimmer than usual, he is a strong contender for a bolter role in France.
The Ospreys full-back shone in the Champions Cup victory over Montpellier this season, but his career has been hit with injuries. However, Gatland is not one to forget and is backing the 23-year-old to stake a claim for the World Cup and beyond.
“He may end up as a 10 in the future, but I think 15 has been a good position for him,” the Wales boss said. “It is a position we need to look at in terms of getting some depth going forward.
He added: “We’ve been impressed by Cai. He has a big boot on him, he’s pretty brave, and his goal-kicking is good as well.”
The big talking point from Gatland’s squad. The promising youngster shot onto the scene with a performance beyond his years on debut against Australia in November last year and went on to play four of Wales’ five games in the Six Nations.
However, with him signing with Exeter Chiefs ahead of next season, he was ineligible for Wales as he does not satisfy the 25-Test cap rule and did not sign with the Premiership side before his debut.
The loss of Hawkins is a blow for the entire Wales team. One man does not the team, but the 20-year-old was already living up to his hype.
Gatland also invested four Test matches in the youngster – in a World Cup year – and saw the Exeter-bound star as a key player in his backline.
“I’ve got to respect that decision but, from a coaching perspective, we’re disappointed to lose someone of his potential and his talent, at least for the next few years,” Gatland said.
Hawkins was bound to be a key man for Gatland now and in the future and, having signed a long-term deal with Exeter, it looks as if it will be a long time before we see the talented centre in a Wales jersey again, if ever.
The plethora of talented back-rowers in Wales means that a few loose forwards will always feel hard done by. Morris comfortably fits in that category after a superb season for the Ospreys.
After playing five of the nine British and Irish Lions matches in 2021, and three of the five Six Nations matches this year, few would have guessed that Jones would miss out on Gatland’s training squad – never mind his finalised World Cup squad.
The Scarlets prop has struggled with injuries and is a victim of Wales’ shift to more mobile props in 2023. Unfortunately, injuries do happen, and it limited Jones’ game time this year and, ultimately, his Test aspirations.
Another player Gatland has favoured in the past, but Patchell just wasn’t starting enough for the Scarlets this year and also spent time on the sidelines.
A standout for the Dragons since arriving from Ulster, Roberts cracked the Six Nations squad earlier this year, but his performances in the tournament have evidently hurt his World Cup dreams.
The same applies to Baldwin, who forced his way back into the Wales set-up but could not convince the coaching staff that he deserved another shot.
Elliot Dee and Dewi Lake returning from injury has hurt both hookers’ chances, while Ryan Elias also forced his way back into the side.
The props have been a prominent theme throughout the analysis of the Wales squad, and it’s only fitting that we end on the topic.
While Thomas became eligible to represent Wales again and earned a call-up, Ospreys tighthead Botha wasn’t as lucky. Having joined the Ospreys back in 2018, he qualifies through residency.
Botha is cut from the same cloth as Springbok tighthead Frans Malherbe, as he thrives in finding ways to fold his opposing loosehead into some sort of origami submission in the scrum. While he is no slouch around the park, he is more of a traditional front-rower who will spend most of the match looking to clear out rucks and make his tackles, rather than making mobile carries and throwing a perfect flat ball out the back to a fly-half or full-back.
Unfortunately for Botha, the Wales boss is just looking for a different style of player and is possibly looking further ahead than just this World Cup, which may exclude the 32-year-old prop.
READ MORE: Exeter ‘don’t take any responsibility’ for Joe Hawkins ineligibility saga
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