A long-term solution to Wales’ decade-old centre problem – and it’s not George North
International rugby is different gravy when it comes to coaching and not just because the standard is higher. If a club is weak in one particular position, they can recruit there. If a nation is weak in a certain area, the options are far more limited. Rhiannon Garth Jones takes a look at Wales’ centre issue and how it might be solved.
Wales’ problems at centre are well-known and longstanding. They’re the perfect example of the problem that faces international coaches when their squad is weak in a certain position. It’s not a new issue for the country. In fact, since the retirement of Tom Shanklin in 2011, and arguably before that, it’s been a concern.
That’s not to say that Wales haven’t had quality options in the 12 and 13 jerseys – they absolutely have. Jonathan Davies, Gavin Henson, and Jamie Roberts were all, at times, some of the best centres in the world. Hadleigh Parkes and Scott Williams would make most international squads.
What Wales haven’t had is sufficient depth. For years, injuries to one of Roberts, later Parkes, and Davies were enough to induce panic in most fans. Both their 2015 and 2019 Rugby World Cups were derailed by lack of options at centre. In 2015, they were down to fourth choice at outside centre by the quarter-final and it showed. In 2019, a patched-up Parkes and Davies managed to play in the semi-final but were obviously below their respective abilities. In a three-point game, fans could be forgiven for dreaming of what might have been.
Part of this, of course, is that there just haven’t been many outstanding centres in Wales over this period. There have been promising options, usually hampered by injuries, but there has never been anyone who forced their way into a regular starting position over the incumbents. England had similar problems for over a decade in their back row and successive coaches found it difficult to solve until two genuine top class opensides emerged at once. Sometimes, the players just aren’t there – until they are. It can be a long time to wait, however.
Right here, right now
New Wales coach Wayne Pivac has had a brutal introduction to this problem, with Davies injured again, joined by Scott Williams, the newly eligible Willis Halaholo, and Owen Watkin, the emerging option at 12.
That has left Pivac with only Parkes as an option with recent game time for Wales in the centre. While Parkes is comfortable at both 12 and 13, his recent form has not exactly been inspiring and he might not have the pace required at test level in the 13 jersey (although he certainly chased down Jacob Stockdale well in the Grand Slam decider of 2019). If more options were fit, Pivac might have been tempted to overlook Parkes’ quality as a ‘glue’ player and opt for someone younger, building for the future.
These injury issues have led to much talk in Wales about which back three players, where Wales currently have considerable depth, might have the positional flexibility to cover 13 (Josh Adams, Hallam Amos, Owen Lane, and George North have all been mooted), which youngsters might be ready to step up (Corey Baldwin, Ben Thomas, and Tiaan Thomas-Wheeler – all 21 or under – would seem to be the best options there), and which players might deserve a recall (Owen Williams is the most popular figure in this category, long believed to have the potential of a play-maker 12, and he has indeed been summoned).
The issue is exacerbated by the fact that Gareth Anscombe and Rhys Patchell are also both injured, leaving only Dan Biggar – in the form of his life – as an experienced option at fly half. An injury to Biggar in the upcoming Six Nations and Wales might be playing rookies in two or even three crucial back line positions.
As it is, Pivac has summoned Nick Tompkins (24 years old), recently discovered to have a Welsh grandmother, and recalled Owen Williams (27 years old), seemingly as a fly half/inside centre. Presumably, that means Parkes will start, either at 12 inside Tompkins, or at 13 outside Williams. Given that nine back three players have been called up, there’s still a chance that one of them could get some time at 13, as Adams did against the Barbarians in November or North has in the past.
But the paucity of options available to Pivac for this squad hasn’t been resolved by the call-ups of Owen Williams and Tompkins. Arguably, part of this reason it has been a problem for so long was Warren Gatland’s selection policy and it’s possible that Pivac could use his team selection going forward to carefully strengthen the situation.
Selecting the future
When fit, Gatland had one of the strongest centre pairings in the world at his disposal for at least eight years, whether that was Roberts and Davies or Parkes and Davies, and a more than able deputy in Scott Williams. Lack of depth elsewhere in the team and the continuing need to win games meant that, until 2018 when he started to give Watkin game time, he was loathe to tinker too much with selection.
In fact, according to stats guru Russ Petty, one of Roberts, Davies, Scott Williams, and Parkes have started 94/100 Wales test matches since 2012. The games they didn’t start in were all contests where an experimental or second-string side was selected.
Gatland’s policy was understandable but, had he tinkered more, perhaps centre would have been less of an issue. Regularly playing emerging options at 13 alongside Roberts or a potential 12 alongside Davies, in an otherwise full strength team, would have allowed younger players to emerge in a lower pressure way while gaining experience in the test environment. In most sides, making such a selection gamble at either centre position would have risked the defensive stability of the side but both Roberts and Davies were so defensively strong that it should have been less of a risk for Wales than other teams.
Going forward, then, how can Pivac change things? At 32, with his form seemingly declining, Parkes is unlikely to make the next RWC. Davies is only a year younger and although, for now, he remains one of the best centres in the world, another RWC is not guaranteed for him either – certainly not as a starter. And yet, is it worth throwing them both away?
No, it’s not. But Pivac could start to use them in the way Gatland was so reluctant to try: one at a time, guiding a less experienced player beside them. It is worth noting that Davies can play 12 as well as 13 – he did so with distinction for the British and Irish Lions in 2013 – and so only one of them would need to be fit at any given time for such a policy. Scott Williams (still only 28 years old) has also played both positions at international level and could therefore deputise when needed, and Willis Halaholo has always been comfortable in either jersey, if he can make the step up to test level. That’s a lot of options to make such a policy work.
Risk vs reward
This approach would allow Wales to bring through Owen Williams and Watkin at inside centre and options like Dragons’ classy Tyler Morgan and newly recruited Tompkins at outside centre, without throwing them to the wolves of test rugby unprotected. Crucially, it would give Wales a far deeper pool of options, many of them versatile, to withstand the injury crisis at centre that always seems to be knocking on the door.
International rugby is often about how well you can minimise the weakness of your squad and maximise its strengths. There is currently greater depth at fly half and in the back three for Wales than in the centre, so it makes sense to look to those areas and see what versatility might be within. That said, even the best versatile player is rarely better than a specialist, as the career of James Hook proved.
When Anscombe and Patchell return, Pivac might also be tempted to ask Biggar or Patchell to try themselves in the 12 jersey as well, an option that has long been suggested by fans (although, it should be noted, neither has any real experience there). Those tempting options from the back three could also be given a chance at 13, maximising depth and versatility across the back line.
Adding versatility from other areas of the squad will be extremely helpful when it comes to picking a 31-man squad for France 2023. But that shouldn’t come at the expense of specialist centres being developed and the depth in the backline around the centres right now is a good time to experiment with the options in the middle, especially considering how defensively strong Biggar, Adams, Leigh Halfpenny, Johnny McNichol, and Liam Williams all are, as well as Davies and Parkes.
Gatland’s selection policy was understandable at the time but, if ever there were a time to take a risk with the centre selection policy, it’s the next few years for Wales.
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Written by: Rhiannon Garth Jones
Follow: @rhigarthjones · @therugbymag