Wales included two new faces in the Six Nations squad announced this week by Warren Gatland. But it’s a new approach, bolder and more adventurous, and Scarlets-based, that Robin Davey is looking for this year.
The Scarlets way or the highway. That has to be the Wales mantra as they close in on the Six Nations tournament for which they are rank outsiders.
They are rated at 15-1 to be title winners by the bookies, which seems fair after a less than inspiring autumn series compounded by a number of injuries which forced coach Warren Gatland to name an enlarged 39-man squad in order to cover all eventualities.
Gatland calls those odds a good bet, but so much will depend on the way Wales play in the Six Nations. There was real evidence that they had jettisoned the crash ball approach during the autumn when chief exponent Jamie Roberts was dropped and a more ball-playing type of player, Owen Williams, installed instead.
Roberts remained on the sidelines when Gatland named his Six Nations squad which shows the intent to play a wider game remains. It has to, given the way Scotland are performing under the guidance of new man at the helm, Gregor Townsend.
On top of that, the Scarlets gave the green light to the way ahead last weekend with their stunning performance against Bath in a cracking European Champions Cup tie at the Rec.
It wasn’t just the size of their 35-17 victory which so impressed, it was the manner of the performance.
For the Scarlets simply blew Bath away with some brilliant attacking rugby, giving the ball plenty of air, playing with flair and actively looking for space rather than collisions.
They scored four breath-taking tries in the process as the English giants were left grasping thin air.
And they did so without first choice backs Jonathan Davies, Leigh Halfpenny and Johnny McNicholl which made their achievement even more startling.
They are top of Pool Five in the Champions Cup and face a vital tie against three-time winners Toulon at a likely sold-out Parc Y Scarlets on Saturday.
Not only is it a classic showdown, but it’s been given added spice by controversial owner Mourad Boudjellal calling Wales ‘the Mormon Welsh’ in a reference to the forthcoming disciplinary hearing into Mathieu Bastareaud for his language directed towards a Treviso opponent at the weekend.
Be that as it may, it is now abundantly clear the way ahead for Wales lies in the same approach as the one adopted by the Scarlets at Bath, and in other games for that matter.
It was no surprise that a lot of the exponents of that victory over Bath were included in Gatland’s Six Nations squad, notably Rhys Patchell and James Davies.
Flanker Davies has been left on the sidelines for too long and his all-action displays have finally earned him a call-up while Patchell has been in terrific form and has been one of the main architects of the Scarlets’ refreshing style.
How ironic it would be if he now gets selected for the Six Nations opener against Scotland at full back at the expense of teammate Halfpenny.
Depending on the injury situation, Wales could go in against the Scots with a potentially explosive ‘back three’ of Patchell, Liam Williams and Steff Evans though against England, for example, the more physical George North would probably start.
But for me that has to be on the wing where he can do the most damage. Playing North in the centre, which Gatland has declared is a real possibility, would negate the very ball-handling, creative skills Wales need in midfield.
Wales could be in a better position than many anticipate going into the Six Nations for Scarlets coach Wayne Pivac has said in an interview with the New Zealand Herald the gap is closing between the northern and southern hemisphere teams.
He puts that down to the increasing number of coaches arriving in these shores from New Zealand, spreading the gospel about their style, plus the fact that South African provincial sides and their national team have regressed so significantly these past few years.
So it has to be with some optimism that Wales head into the Six Nations. That’s the glass half-full scenario at any rate.
On the other hand, away games against England and Ireland look more than a bit tricky, given the relative strengths of the opposition, while the opener against rapidly improving Scotland also has a label marked difficult alongside it.
So, it’s decidedly possible Wales could finish down in fifth place with only Italy below them or maybe one spot higher with the French still struggling at international level, laden as their domestic rugby is, with overseas players.
But, for now, optimism must prevail – provided Wales do it the Scarlets way.
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