Wales have one of, if not the most competitive, back rows in the world with some Lions struggling to make the matchday squad. Slimming it down to five or six players for the World Cup Squad and four or five for a matchday 23 will be Warren Gatland’s biggest challenge. In this article we will be looking at which players will most likely go to Japan and which ones will make a full strength Wales matchday 23.
First we will look at number 8. The reason we are starting here is that it’s the most straightforward. Wales’s starting 8 man will be Taulupe Faletau. He will be selected because he is a world class number 8. The reason he is world class is because of his work rate and he is very well rounded. His carrying is strong and makes his tackles. He is good at the breakdown both defensively (for not being an openside) and offensively. People normally don’t notice his work at the breakdown defensively because all he does is slow the ball down and rarely gets turnovers. Slowing the ball down is not as good as a turnover because the other team still has the ball, but it gives his team time to realign and get into optimally positions to defend.
Besides Faletau, Wales have a few other options at 8 but their other options are more like converted flankers in Josh Navidi and Ross Moriarty. They are good options, but are more like cover in case of emergencies, which with Faletau being continuously injured, has been happening too much.
Next we will look at openside. Many consider it to be the most competitive position in this back row, but there can only be one option. Its Justin Tipuric. He is second best in only a few facets of the game compared to the others and the best in the rest. If it weren’t for Warburton, Tipuric would have many more Lions and Wales caps. His work at the defensive breakdown is world class with him comprehensively beating both David Pocock and Michael Hooper here in their recent encounter. He is also a good lineout option and is probably the most skillful flanker in the world. He is just behind Dan Lydiate at being the best tackler on the Welsh team. While there are other very good options, but because of how good Tipuric is, if another one of the 7s hits good form, they will most likely play along side Tipuric.
Now to do a quick rundown of each of the other opensides. James Davies (Jonathan Davies younger brother) is a convert from 7s. He is quick (because of being a convert from 7s), skilled, good at the breakdown, and plays like another back. He can even play on the wing if needed, but would not be anywhere near international quality there. However, I don’t think Davies has enough size and if played would make the Welsh back row too light. Because of this I don’t consider him an option.
Next there is Ellis Jenkins, who is basically Sam Warburton 2.0. The reason I wrote earlier that Tipuric is second best in a few parts of the game is partially because of Ellis Jenkins. Jenkins is better at the breakdown defensively. While Tipuric still makes more turnovers in a combination of tackling, stripping the ball in tackles, lineout steals, and other tricky plays, they are neck in neck in the amount of breakdown turnovers, but Jenkins slows down more of the oppositions rucks. This is what makes him barely better than Tipuric at the breakdown. He also has the rest of the classic openside traits like quickness, good tackling, good hands, a smart rugby brain, and so on.
Josh Navidi is the most physical of all these options, being a player that can cover all across the back row the best. He is good at the defensive breakdown but maybe not quite as good as the others. He is however a better carrier than the others which could help the balance of a team. He also has a very high work rate like the others.
Now for the big decision. Who partners Tipuric? Who besides the other players we already discussed? There are 3 other options. First there is Ross Moriarty. He has been playing a lot of 8 because of the constant injuries to Faletau. He is the best ball carrier out of all the options for blindside including the possible converted openside. He is a very strong tackler and is probably the most likely to make a huge tackle (like knocking a player back a few feet). He is ok at slowing the ball down, but is the worst out of all the viable options. He is the most tempered out of all these players and plays his best right on the edge. Just watch his against England in 2017.
Dan Lydiate is the best player in the world at the chop tackle. He has been out of the game for awhile with injuries (and is currently injured). Lydiate is not a very good carrier, but is one who will consistently go forward and is skilled. He is good at the unseen work. He rarely ever misses a tackle (he went through an entire Six Nations without missing one) and always makes quite a few (tackle count normally around 20). After Moriarty, he is the most likely to make a dominate tackle and will always make a good tackle. He is the second or third worst out of all the options at the defensive breakdown (depending on how you weigh a turnover versus slowing ruck ball down). He is good at slowing the ball down for not being a 7, and might make a turnover once every few games. He is also the worst choice for a bench player; because of the way he plays he doesn’t add a big impact off the bench.
Finally there is Aaron Shingler. He is the most skilled and fastest of all the options. He will make more turnovers than Lydiate but won’t slow the ball down as well at the breakdown. Shingler will tackle well and is a good carrier. He is by far the best lineout option including Tipuric (he is also lock cover if desperately necessary). However I would only pick him if you need to loosen the game up and get a bonus point or need a very good lineout option. Because of this he drops below the other options.
Now for the verdict. With Faletau’s and Tipuric’s spots assured it’s only a matter of adding the blindside. Because of how good all the options are they can all be useful. However there are different styles of play that would play to each of these players strengths. Lydiate is the choice if Wales mainly need its blindside to stop the opposition behind the gainline and stop big carriers. Moriarty is the choice if Wales need another big ball carrier to break the defence and someone to make big hits or get in the face of the opposition 10. Jenkins is the choice if Wales need to slow the other teams ball down and/or target them at the breakdown. Navidi gives them a mixture of the other three with good carrying, tackling, breakdown work, and skills.
If Lydiate or Moriarty starts at 6, Navidi or Jenkins will be on the bench depending if Wales will need more of a blindside type impact off the bench or more breakdown work. They can both cover 7 and 8 in case of injury. If Navidi or Jenkins starts at 6 it will be either Moriarty or the other of Navidi and Jenkins off the bench depending on what Wales need for that game, but more likely Moriarty because if Faletau gets injured it keeps some size in the back row. If Ellis Jenkins were to play alongside Tipuric it would not matter which who went on which side of the scrum, but if Tipuric were to play with Navidi, Moriarty, or Lydiate he would be on the openside. All these selections are also heavily dependent on who Wales pick at loosehead (Nicky Smith or Rob Evans), Lock, or centre.
So that’s who Wales will take to the Rugby World Cup: Taulupe Faletau, Ross Moriarty, Justin Tipuric, Ellis Jenkins, Josh Navidi, and Dan Lydiate. My current combination would be Lydiate, Tipuric, and Faletau with Navidi off the bench, but that is not accounting who Wales will play and the rest of their team.