Wales take on Scotland in the first of the autumn internationals, with Hadleigh Parkes now established at inside centre. But Harri Morgan remembers a time not so long ago, when something entirely different was all the rage.
In rugby, just like in fashion, fads come and go.
The Lydiate chop, the Irish choke and of course, the Goodey grip gloves .
Rewind 12 months and Owen Williams was the fresh face of Warren Gatland’s autumn range. The Gloucester stand-off was selected in the 12 jumper, briefed with providing the Welsh back line with a ball-playing second receiver.
To flog the fashion metaphor further, the decision was akin to a 40-year-old gent opting to pair his jeans with a snazzy pair of high tops rather than the comfort of his trusty old walking boots for a visit to the boozer.
A gnarly, physical inside centre was Warren Gatland’s trusty walking boot of choice. His comfort zone, and the bedrock of his success. Apologies for this analogy, Jamie.
The roots of the campaign for Wales to deploy a second playmaker were found in the wave of success that Eddie Jones’ England side were riding. The perception was that the Ford-Farrell axis was at the heart of a record-equalling winning streak and that Wales needed to keep up with the Jones’.
Gatland experienced success of his own with Farrell at 12. The decision to pair Johnny Sexton and Owen Farrell was deemed by most as critical to the British & Irish Lions turning around the series after defeat in the first Test in New Zealand in 2017. The behaviour of the All Blacks inside centre was probably more important.
In the context of this success, the selection of Williams seemed a logical step in the ongoing strategy to evolve the Welsh style from Warrenball – a game plan that is either genius or outdated, depending on the result.
Despite experiencing defeat against Australia and New Zealand, the jury didn’t rush to condemn the Owen Williams experiment. It could work out – more time to deliberate, please my lord.
Then, a freshly baked Welshman, Hadleigh Parkes, ripped it up in the final Test of the autumn. His performance in a victory over South Africa earning him a MOM award on debut, and more importantly the key to the No.12 locker for the Six Nations.
The volume that rung from the experts and supporters, who were certain that a creative second five-eighth was a pre-requisite to future Welsh success, fell silent.
Hadleigh the hybrid was undoubtedly the man for the job. Owen who?
Parkes will run out for his ninth cap when Wales face Scotland for the Doddie Weir Cup on Saturday. Meanwhile, Ben Te’o will play at inside centre for England, for whom the success that influenced Wales’ autumnal experiment 12 months ago, must seem a lifetime past.
Only time will tell whether the selection of another former South Sydney Rabbitoh in the midfield is a horses for courses job, or the end of the Ford-Farrell combination.
My read on it would be that the imbalance of power exposed on the high veldt will render the return of the crash, bang wallop a permanent one for Eddie Jones.
With the countdown on to the World Cup in Japan, the autumn internationals will no doubt invoke plenty of opinionated debate amongst fans as to the adjustments that their sides must make if they want to be crowned world champions in Tokyo next November.
But the challenge facing the experts tasked with guiding their nation to glory is far more complex.
Attempting a counterfeit job on the trend-setters might yield improvement but any side with that mind set will never lead the pack. Gatland, Jones and the like must consider how to position their charges to exploit opportunity – not only in the current Test match environment – but also with a view to how the sport will look in 12 months’ time.