Former Wales captain Sam Warburton believes that Exeter forward Christ Tshiunza is “ticking all the boxes” ahead of this season’s Guinness Six Nations Championship.
Wales’ starting back-row against opening opponents Ireland on February 4 looks likely to comprise Jac Morgan, Justin Tipuric and Taulupe Faletau.
But 21-year-old Tshiunza offers Wales head coach Warren Gatland considerable options across the back row and second row.
And Warburton feels that his fellow Whitchurch High School product could prove a key asset for both the Six Nations and World Cup this year.
“He plays wide a lot at Exeter, which suits Wales’ system when they put a hooker or a back-rower in their 15-metre channel. He is very comfortable with ball in hand,” Warburton said.
“He is not shy to dip in at breakdown defence as well and he is kind of ticking all the boxes at the minute. I am a big fan.
“He wears seven at Exeter, but to me he looks like a blindside. He does a bit of everything, which is nice.”
Tshiunza, who made his Wales debut against Fiji in 2021, provides a considerable physical presence at 6ft 6in and 17st 7lbs.
And Warburton added: “His lineout credentials are one big bonus, and weight is another.
“With Tshiunza at six, who is 115kg, it makes a world of difference to a scrum. I am sure from a set-piece perspective there is a massive advantage there.
“For example, if you are playing South Africa, I think you are going to pick a different back row.
“I think you would go with Tshiunza at six against South Africa, who are going to come with a strong lineout and a strong set-piece game.
“So I think it’s horses for courses and it gives you a little bit of flexibility over who you pick. I wouldn’t say Morgan and Tipuric is the only combination throughout the whole Six Nations or World Cup.
“I think there is definitely a time and a place where you might chop and change.”
Warburton has also welcomed the return of Dragons back-row forward Aaron Wainwright, who has won 36 caps but not featured at Test level for almost a year.
“It could be the most athletic back row we’ve picked in a squad for a long time,” Warburton said.
“You look at Tshiunza, Wainwright, Morgan, (Tommy) Reffell, Tipuric and Faletau – proven athlete after proven athlete after proven athlete.
“I think Justin is someone who certainly plays, given his experience and his leadership credentials. I think Jac Morgan is in the front-running as well and Taulupe Faletau is nailed on for number eight.
“That is what I see as the starting trio, but I think we will see Tshiunza play at six at some point and I think Wainwright will get a run, whether he comes off the bench or plays in that six-eight hybrid role.
“I think ‘Gats’ will want him to get some more international rugby under his belt because he could be a big player for Wales, not just for now but beyond 2023 as well.
“We’ve got enough depth there now. As long as those guys are used and exposed to international rugby over the next few months then the back-row will be in a good place moving forward.”