Wales coach Rob Howley is due to announce his Six Nations squad on Tuesday. Graham Thomas looks at whether change really is in the air.
Rob Howley’s first radical act as Wales coach is expected to be his decision to change his captain, but it is less of a shift than a continuation in the direction of travel.
Of the four Tests Howley presided over as interim head coach back in November, Sam Warburton only led the side once – the narrow, nervy victory over Japan.
Gethin Jenkins was skipper for the other three matches, a switch that has been performed before when Warburton has wanted to concentrate on his own form after injuries, rather than the burden of leadership.
Jenkins is coming towards the end of his Test career and is currently injured, meaning Alun Wyn Jones was the only obvious alternative to Warburton as the new captain.
It is hardly a new broom, since the man carrying the brush has won 111 Test caps for Wales and the Lions and his voice is just as familiar to those in the dressing room as Warburton’s – more familiar if you happen to also play for the Ospreys.
It is less about leadership and more about form – Warburton’s and the rising challenge to his place in the starting team.
Not only does the Cardiff Blues flanker still have the threat of Justin Tipuric for the No.7 shirt, but there is also the emergence of Wasps’ openside Thomas Young, a leading performer this season in the Aviva Premiership.
Should Howley decided that Warburton should be playing at No.6 – another more recent direction in which things have moved – then he must see off another England-based rival in Ross Moriarty of Gloucester, if is he is to earn a starting place. His other more established contender, Dan Lydiate, is out for the season.
Young was on stand by for Wales’ tour of New Zealand in the summer before a hamstring injury ruled him out of the end of the Premiership campaign.
He also underwent shoulder surgery during pre-season but believes the break has allowed him to maintain his form, with five tries in 17 games, which has helped Wasps to the top of the Premiership.
“I got injured the last game of the season and it was a long summer of rehab. I ended up having shoulder surgery as well as repairing a hamstring tendon tear so it was a double whammy,” he said. “Things happen for a reason so it gave my body a bit of a rest having played more last year.
“We’d just got into the semi final of the Premiership. I was more disappointed I wouldn’t be able to play in that game. We’d done so well to get there so I was disappointed and then to find out I was on stand by hurt but you have to deal with it.”
Ospreys wing Keelan Giles is likely to represent the future, provided the 18-year-old recovers from a hamstring injury suffered playing in Europe at the weekend.
Giles has in the squad for those autumn internationals but did not make it onto the field as Howley went for the established wing/back three order of Leigh Halfpenny, Liam Williams, George North and Alex Cuthbert.
Ashton Hewitt, the Newport Gwent Dragons’ 22-year-old wing, is another who must be close to upsetting that familiar order.
Sam Davies – who made his own breakthrough last autumn – will be alongside Dan Biggar among the half-back slots, with a return for scrum-half Rhys Webb, even though he is still due to make his comeback from injury.
When the flak was flying last autumn, Howley described the criticism directed towards himself and his squad as “white noise” – indicating it was a background buzz he was only faintly aware of.
The volume of the Six Nations always drowns out whatever happened in the autumn, meaning Howley must make sure his squad sound all the right noises, starting now with his own selection.