With the Autumn International series now over, we take a look at nine things Warren Gatland’s Wales side will have learnt…
1.Dan Biggar has to play 10
The debate over whether Priestland or Biggar should start for Wales should now finally have been settled. Biggar has been one of Wales’ best players during the Autumn International window and thoroughly deserves to be wearing the number 10 shirt heading into next year’s Six Nations and beyond.
There is however still a question mark over who should back him up. Priestland seems to be struggling for form at the moment so it may be time for Gatland to take more of a look at someone like Rhys Patchell or Gareth Anscombe to offer some genuine competition for Biggar.
2.There needs to be a Plan B
Whilst at times Wales use of Warrenball seemed quite effective during the Autumn, there were a number of occasions when the side looked completely bereft of ideas. Unfortunately once a team seem to have nullified the big Welsh ball carrier, the men in red can struggle to make an impact on the game.
For this reason Gatland needs to look at a Plan B that his side can fall back on should the direct route not be working. He has the kind of players capable of playing to a different game plan but needs to give them the confidence to play in a more open and expansive style.
3.Liam Williams should start
It seems Williams misdemeanour in South Africa has been almost entirely forgotten about after he put in a string of top quality performances for Wales during the Autumn Internationals. If he can maintain this kind of form in the Pro 12 then he deserves another opportunity to start for Wales.
The key question is who should he replace in the Welsh back three? His most influential position seems to be at fullback where he can fully utilise his array of talents, but he has also demonstrated that he is more than capable of playing out on the wing. Halfpenny, Cuthbert and North should all be concerned!
4.Southern Hemisphere sides are beatable
Gatland’s men finally broke their Southern Hemisphere hoodoo after beating an admittedly poor Springboks side in their final game of 2014. Not only this but they also went toe-to-toe with the Wallabies and All Blacks for 60+ minutes before tailing off in the final quarter.
This should give Wales confidence that they are capable of competing with the very best in the world. They now just need to believe they can do this consistently if they are to seriously challenge at the World Cup next year.
5.The last 20 minutes is key
The issue for Wales hasn’t been that they aren’t capable of competing with the Southern Hemisphere sides recently, in fact at times they have outplayed them. Instead what they need to focus on is closing out games in the final 20 minutes rather than falling apart like they did against New Zealand and Australia.
Whether it be a fitness related issue or a mental block, Gatland needs to ensure his team are fully prepared for the full 80 minutes (and possibly beyond) before the World Cup kicks off. Hopefully the victory over South Africa will have helped eradicate any potential mental blocks they may have had.
6.The back row look back to their best
Over the last year or two most of the Welsh back row have looked a little out of sorts and have thusly failed to play to their full potential. It seems this is no longer an issue with Warburton back firing on all cylinders and Dan Lydiate putting his Top 14 troubles behind him to put in a string of solid performances.
Add in to this the ever impressive Toby Faletau and Wales have a back row that is right up there. The issue however may be that beyond Justin Tipuric on the bench there is a lack of strength in depth so should injury strike they could be left slightly exposed ahead of the World Cup.
7.Trust in the young players coming through
The last few weeks have really proven that some of the Welsh youngsters, particularly in the pack, are more than capable of making the step up to international level. Samson Lee and Jake Ball are the most obvious examples of this having become integral members of the Wales pack.
It seems that given the success of Ball and Lee that Gatland should maybe look to blood a couple of other younger players in key positions in order to give them international experience ahead of the World Cup. There is plenty of talent in the regions, they now just need to be given a chance for Wales.
8.Strength in depth is still a concern
In a number of key positions Wales still look woefully short of cover. Whilst the first choice players are up there amongst the best in Europe, their back ups leave a lot to be desired for which was one of the main reasons Gatland moved North to the centres rather than promoting someone like Williams.
For this reason Wales need to spend the next nine months looking for players capable of stepping up to the first team and not only providing cover but challenging the established order and providing serious competition for places so nobody feels too confident about keeping their shirt.
9.The squad is relatively settled
All great World Cup squads have relied on experienced partnerships throughout the side which provide a basis for them to work off. Wales looks to have this in abundance with the back row, centres and back three all having had plenty of game time together in recent years.
These experienced combinations allow for Wales to introduce less experienced players like Rhys Webb, Samson Lee and Liam Williams into the side seamlessly. It is therefore important for Gatland to make the most of these combinations in the World Cup.