The injury to Ellis Jenkins was the only dark cloud to darken a golden autumn for Wales. But Robin Davey believes depth in key positions now makes Wales far less vulnerable to forced changes than in the recent past.
The serious knee injury suffered by Wales and Cardiff Blues back rower Ellis Jenkins is harsh on a player who was really blossoming after a successful summer tour and a terrific performance against the Springboks.
The Blues have now confirmed that Jenkins needs an operation, but it says a great deal for the depth which now exists that there’s a pretty long queue of Wales players lining up to take his place.
One of the benefits of the unbeaten summer tour against South Africa and Argentina followed by Wales’ first November clean sweep was to reveal the amount of talent which now exists.
It’s a tribute to the long-term planning of Warren Gatland and his coaching staff that they have added to the depth so much that if one key player falls by the wayside there’s now a number waiting to take over.
Take the example of Jenkins, who, ironically, was only drafted into the Welsh team on the morning of the South Africa game when an elbow injury ruled Dan Lydiate out.
Even then he had to switch positions very early in the game after Ross Moriarty suffered a head injury and subsequently failed an HIA examination. That meant Jenkins had to switch from flanker, a role he filled with aplomb.
Then, in the final moments, he was cleared out at a ruck by two big Springbok forwards and had to be taken from the field on a stretcher after being given painkilling gas to numb the agony.
He is still waiting a final diagnosis amid fears he has damaged anterior cruciate ligaments which could sideline him for up to nine months and in the worst case scenario make him a doubt for next year’s World Cup.
But take a look at the players waiting for an opportunity – who, for one reason or another –have not been given a recent opportunity.
Top of the pile is probably Josh Navidi who burst on to the international scene during the last Six Nations tournament and has served Cardiff Blues loyally.
Injury ruled him out of the autumn series, but he could well be back in the Welsh team for the Six Nations in the New Year.
Then there’s Ollie Griffiths, the Dragons player who can occupy any of the back row positions. He was left out of the autumn squad by Gatland and has since been injured.
But he burst back onto the scene for his region against Edinburgh on Sunday with yet another man-of-the-match performance.
James ‘Cubby’ Davies, the Scarlets flanker, has also been out of action, this time for a lot longer, but he’s now on the mend and will aim to prove Gatland wrong for consistently ignoring his claims.
Wasps flanker Thomas Young is another who has his supporters, turning in consistent performances for his club in the demanding English Premiership without ever gaining international recognition.
And, of course, there’s Taulupe Faletau to return in the back row. While Moriarty has deputised extremely well for him it’s inconceivable that Wales would go in without one of the best No 8s in the world.
It’s not just in the back row where Wales are in rude health. As the Six Nations appears on the horizon, after some tough European matches and the holiday derbies, there are other areas of intense competition for a limited number of spot.
Take the situation at lock, for example. In the not so distant past it was Alun Wyn Jones and one other, and God help Wales if Captain Fantastic was ever injured.
But now the arrival of Cory Hill, the rapid rise of Adam Beard and the return from injury of Jake Ball has made a vast difference while there’s always the experienced pair of Bradley Davies and Luke Charteris to call upon.
And look at the competition at outside-half where Dan Biggar has virtually been pushed aside by Gareth Anscombe with Rhys Patchell not far behind, too.
No-one is suggesting Biggar is past his best, but his more regimented style, while useful in the later stages of matches, and not forgetting his place kicking abilities, now appears a bit outdated.
After suffering a fair bit of abuse – and not particularly liked by some of his keyboard critics simply because he was a perceived outsider because of his New Zealand upbringing – Anscombe has suddenly become flavour of the month.
His game management has improved considerably, he gets his line moving well, he doesn’t kick the ball as much as Biggar and he’s a reasonable goal kicker into the bargain.
Patchell also has his admirers. Now back to full fitness he, like Anscombe, is a smooth operator who gets the line moving and is also in with a big shout of making the Six Nations.
So, a trio of Anscombe, Patchell and Biggar means Wales are well blessed at No.10 while Jarrod Evans is also in the mix after enjoying a successful run for Cardiff Blues, with Anscombe often at full back for the region.
All over there’s so much more competition – Dillon Lewis and Nicky Smith alongside Rob Evans, Tomas Francis and Samson Lee at prop, all well capable of holding the position down, Francis celebrating becoming the first Wales prop to score a try against any of the big southern hemisphere nations when he crashed over against South Africa.
Elsewhere among the backs, Tomos Williams has emerged as a real challenger to Gareth Davies and the telling thing that can be said there is that Rhys Webb has hardly been missed.
Scott Williams will be back to challenge Hadley Parkes for a place in the centre and while it’s fair to say Jonathan Davies’ place is almost set in stone, Tyler Morgan is back firing and Owen Watkin is also right up there.
At full back, the Leigh Halfpenny or Liam Williams debate continues, depending on what sort of game Gatland wants to play while George North is also pretty much guaranteed a starting place.
But Steff Evans and Josh Adams are heading the queue of challengers while Jonah Holmes emerged from nowhere, playing for Leicester but with a Welsh qualification, and looking promising against Tonga.
So, while Ireland and New Zealand are undeniably the world’s top two nations, Wales are nicely poised at number three with a vastly enhanced and improved squad.
It all looks encouraging for the Six Nations, opening with a tester in France who will be smarting after their shock home reverse against Fiji, and ending with all-conquering Ireland at the Principality Stadium.
Bring it on!