In 12 months’ time, Wales will be in Japan for the World Cup and Warren Gatland’s time as coach will be coming to an end. It’s a long goodbye, but Robin Davey believes it could be a sweet parting with Gatland’s squad strength building nicely.
Warren Gatland is about to enter the final year of his long reign as Wales coach and this time, with the autumn series approaching, he looks to be setting off on that last leg in a position of strength.
In the bank is a rare 100% summer tour record when a youngish Wales team, shorn of many of their leading players who were deliberately rested, not only beat South Africa in the USA en route for Argentina, they also won the mini Test series, 2-0.
The value of that triumph has since been proved by the way the Pumas have rallied in their Rugby Championship series, recently beating Australia.
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Atgofion o waed, chwys a dagrau… pic.twitter.com/fn0NMYAnmv
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Nowhere is Wales’ current strength better illustrated than in the back row, despite the unfortunate retirement of former captain Sam Warburton, the injury suffered by James Davies which will rule him out for around three months, and the absence of fellow Scarlet Aaron Shingler, also out until the new year.
Justin Tipuric, a gifted footballing No.7 if ever there was one, has earned rave reviews after his performance for the Ospreys against Benetton at the weekend.
The 29-year-old seems sure to be one of the first names Gatland pencils in for the team to face Scotland in November in the first game of the World Cup countdown.
That would be Tipuric’s 58th cap – in contrast to the younger pretenders like Ellis Jenkins and the rapidly emerging Ollie Griffiths.
Jenkins was co-captain of the Wales squad on their summer tour, along with Cory Hill, and his continuing good form for Cardiff Blues makes him a hot tip to face the Scots as well and add to his eight caps.
Griffiths has been dogged by a series of injuries which have restricted his appearances for the Dragons, but he has started the season with a bang and has been earmarked for a lengthy Wales career by head coach Bernard Jackman.
Griffiths, now 23, enjoyed a brilliant spell with Wales Under-20s, but because of those injuries and the presence of the likes of Warburton and Tipuric, he has been limited to one cap. It’s unlikely to remain that way for long.
At No.8 it looks like being a straight fight between Taulupe Faletau and Ross Moriarty, though Moriarty can slot in easily enough at six as well.
Faletau has been an ever present in the Wales team as one of the finest No. 8s in the world and he’s has now got 72 caps to his name. But recently the almost unthinkable happened. He was dropped.
His club coach Todd Blackadder left him out of the Bath team in favour of hot England prospect Zac Mercer, who has taken advantage with some terrific form, making it difficult for the gifted former Dragons player.
His former slot at Rodney Parade has now been taken by Moriarty, settling in really well on his return to Wales from a spell with Gloucester.
Moriarty left Kingsholm partly because Jackman sold him the Dragons development dream and also, of course, because he would have fallen foul of the 60-cap rule had he remained in England.
He has turned in a few typically aggressive performances for the Dragons and will fight Faletau all the way for that starting place in the autumn series.
And there remains the redoubtable Josh Turnbull for Gatland to call on, too.
A late replacement for the summer tour, he is one of those unsung hard working players worth their weight in gold.
Thomas Young is another candidate for the Wales back row after seemingly falling off the radar a bit playing for Wasps.
Elsewhere, there are other advantages emerging for this Wales squad, like a possible return for Luke Charteris, now 35 but earning renewed respect as Bath’s new captain.
In Jenkins and fellow Cardiff Blues player, prop Dillon Lewis, Gatland can call on two players who were huge successes on Wales’ summer tour.
And with the evergreen Alun Wyn Jones, plus the likes of Liam Williams, Leigh Halfpenny and George North all set to return to the ranks you have to say it’s looking good as the World Cup countdown ticks towards kick-off in Japan.