Rugby at international level is a four-year cycle revolving around the World Cup.
As soon as one tournament is over, the theory is that top coaches will evolve a team for the next one – giving younger players the opportunity to develop at the expense of older stars considered likely to be past their sell-by date a further four years down the line.
It should have started with Wales the moment Wayne Pivac took over from Warren Gatland, but the pandemic means we have in effect lost two years so his planning should begin in earnest during the upcoming autumn campaign which starts against New Zealand next weekend.
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England have thrown down the gauntlet with their autumn squad selection.
Eddie Jones has been ruthless in axing some of his senior men – Billy Vunipola, Mako Vunipola and George Ford among them – and instead calling up a plethora of younger players who have begun to make their mark in the Gallagher Premiership.
He is looking further ahead, it appears, to France 2023.
Jones can do this for two reasons.
The first is that the English Premiership is a much better breeding ground anyway than regional rugby. Much of our success over the past decade was as a result of Gatland moulding players his way in Team Wales, rather than people necessarily shining particularly brightly in the Guinness PRO14.
England’s even bigger advantage is that Jones is spoilt for choice when it comes to numbers.
Pivac faces much more difficult decisions and a greater balancing act.
But these are conversations he needs to be having with his coaching team because while Welsh rugby is always about the present, the ultimate goal has to be the next World Cup.
And while there is something to be said for experience, when you look at the age profile of the likely Wales team two years down the line it is clearly a cause for concern.
We could easily end up in a situation whereby Wales suddenly have a core group of players whose best days are well and truly behind them by the time the 2023 tournament kicks off.
The way around that is for Pivac to begin planning properly this autumn, but that would mean some massive calls, even more radical than we’ve seen from Eddie Jones, and I’m not convinced he’s ready to make them.
The biggest of the lot centres around Alun Wyn Jones. He will be 38 by the time France 2023 comes around. As such we’ve reached the stage where other individuals should be taking on his two roles, as player and also captain.
Cory Hill appeared to be a natural successor, but he has made himself unavailable by moving to Japan.
Adam Beard and Will Rowlands are the pair Pivac could be grooming for the World Cup, but I don’t see Alun Wyn giving up his position any time soon.
In an ideal world, given Alun Wyn’s age, Wales would start their planning this autumn and appoint a new captain in time for the 2022 Six Nations, with that man the one who leads the team into the World Cup.
Yet those who have occasionally stood in for Alun Wyn as captain have included Jonathan Davies, Justin Tipuric and Ken Owens, while Dan Biggar is also a key part of the leadership group. Respectively they will be aged 35, 34, 36 and 34 come the World Cup, so that’s not the solution either.
Ellis Jenkins will be 30 by then, he was always seen as a leader of men, took on the job previously and is the obvious candidate to groom for the captaincy full-time.
Yet he has his own issues, having spent two years rehabilitating after knee surgery, and first we have to see if Jenkins can recapture the enormous potential shown in his early years, let alone be handed the extra responsibility of leading out the team again.
At least back-row isn’t a problem area for Wales, it’s one area where we continue to throw up an abundance of riches.
Tipuric and Taulupe Faletau have been world class, albeit they are each getting on in rugby parlance. Josh Navidi was excellent for Cardiff Blues for a number of years, yet was never given a look-in at Test level. As soon as he was handed a chance, he proved to be a revelation.
Jenkins, Thomas Young and Taine Basham can battle it out for the number seven jersey this autumn, with the Dragons youngster setting the world on fire at the moment and looking capable of nailing down the spot.
It will be fascinating to see how Basham fares against the southern hemisphere giants, if Pivac gives him the chance.
This is what I mean about younger players developing. Basham could well thrive and become Wales’ openside at the World Cup, bringing much-needed younger legs into the team.
As for other positions, well no-one really nailed Davies’ outside centre berth while he was out injured. George North probably did a little better than anyone else. He seems to have been around for an eternity, but is still only 29 and seems the obvious person for the 13 jersey, having risen to the challenge of a new position.
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Yet frustratingly North is out injured until Christmas, so it is an opportunity for Johnny Williams or Nick Tompkins to put down a marker.
At hooker Pivac tends to stick with his favoured trio so presumably if and when Wales eventually dispense with Ken Owens’ services, one of Ryan Elias or Elliot Dee comes in.
But Owens is better than the others still, so it’s hard to see any change there.
Perhaps the biggest worry for me is who fills the prestigious No. 10 jersey going forward.
Lots are pinning their hopes on Gareth Anscombe, but he’ll be 32 when the World Cup comes around and still has to prove himself again at the highest level after two years out.
Dan Biggar never ceases to amaze me with his resilience whenever written off, but he will be 34 out in France. Rhys Priestland, perhaps the form 10 in Wales at the moment, will be 36 by then.
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The only young one in the squad is Callum Sheedy and he hasn’t managed to establish himself yet.
I guess the Sheedy situation kind of encapsulates everything in a nutshell. These younger players need more game time in a Wales jersey to develop their potential so they are in prime position come the World Cup. Fully prepared and ready for the challenges ahead.
Yet at the moment they’re not doing enough to really challenge and take the places of the established order, who in turn might be well past their best come the World Cup.n
It underlines the quandary facing Pivac. He has some truly difficult decisions to make, it’s about the balancing act.
In an ideal world, he should be evolving the side with immediate effect this autumn – and, in truth, the process should have begun already.
The indications seem to be that he will stick with the status quo.
If so, I hope that doesn’t impact negatively on our World Cup prospects in two years’ time.
Graham Price was speaking in association with Nigel Jones, experts in dental implants