ROBIN DAVEY SAYS: New era as super Shane bows out
12:10pm Tuesday 22nd November 2011 in Sport
THE endless search for new Welsh rugby talent goes on as coach Warren Gatland and his management team seek to build on the achievements of the recent World Cup and look towards the next one.
The two months in New Zealand either discovered on the big stage or developed a host of fresh young talent with skipper Sam Warburton, Rhys Priestland, George North, Toby Faletau and Leigh Halfpenny leading the way, with Lloyd Williams and Scott Williams not far behind.
Now there are three more newcomers in the latest squad chosen to prepare for the one-off game against Australia at the Millenn-ium Stadium a week on Saturday.
Cardiff Blues wing Alex Cuthbert and Scarlets full back Liam Williams have played a handful of matches at regional level between them yet earn rapid promotion out of the blue.
Cuthbert is English, born and bred in Gloucestershire, but is a student at UWIC and qualifies through a Welsh grandmother. At 6ft 6ins and 16st 5lbs he is quite a physical specimen, a slight contrast to Shane Williams, the player he could be groomed to succeed.
Cuthbert was fast tracked for Wales in the Commonwealth Games in Delhi last year and after a number of impressive performances for the Blues this season, showing plenty of dash, Gatland has wasted no time in drafting him into the Wales squad.
Williams has also come from nowhere, a tall, rangy runner, at 20 a year younger than Cuthbert, and he looked the part in the Scarlets’ terrific Heineken Cup win at Northampton at the weekend.
The third new face, Lewis Evans, has been around for a while longer with the Dragons, and at 24 has been close to making the Welsh scene in the past, only to suffer a little with inconsistency.
But he is a classy, footballing type of back row forward who can play at No 8 or blindside and he clinched his place with a man-of-the-match performance against Perpignan last Thursday in front of Gatland.
While it’s great news for the Dragons it will dissipate their back row resources, Evans joining Toby Faletau and Dan Lydiate in the back row selections for the national squad.
Yet while Gatland is generous in his choice of new young players he appears to be less so with those in the veteran category.
While Shane Williams gets a swansong at the Millennium Stadium before he quits the international scene at 34, Stephen Jones, a year younger, gets no such opportunity and is omitted from the squad altogether.
Williams is pretty much guaranteed a farewell appearance and deservedly so after a glittering career, not to mention the sentimental value of selling tickets for the match to give the fans a chance to say farewell.
But Jones, who is Wales’ most capped player with 104 to his name, will not even be on the bench, even though James Hook is not available along with the other foreign and English-based players because the fixture is outside the normal IRB window.
Obviously Priestland is guaranteed a starting place after his exploits in the World Cup, but it seems harsh, if not ruthless even, to discard Jones altogether.
In the case of Williams he remains good enough to warrant a starting place which may not be the case with Jones, but if there is room for sentiment with one then why not with the other?
Gatland has said preparations for the next World Cup in 2015 start now, and as neither Williams nor Jones will be involved it does seem a bit unfair to include one against Auustralia, probably in the starting line-up, yet overlook the other completely.
Selection, the team due to be announced next Tuesday, does appear to depend completely on the fitness of a number of leading players.
Gatland has included no fewer than eight players currently on the injured list - North (groin), Jamie Roberts (knee), Priestland (shoulder), Halfpenny (ankle), Adam Jones (calf), Huw Bennett (neck), Luke Charteris (wrist) and Lydiate (ankle).
Lock Alun Wyn Jones has been ruled out completely after undergoing an operation last week while French-based Hook, Mike Phillips and Lee Byrne, plus English-based trio Craig Mitchell, Andy Powell and Dwayne Peel, could not be considered.
So it could be a strange-looking side which takes the field, though Australia are also without a number of players due to the injury jinx, most notably Quade Cooper who limped out of the World Cup, plus wing Drew Mitchell, who suffered a similar fate, while scrum half Luke Burgess is now with Toulouse.
The match is little more than a blatant money-making exercise by the WRU, though in agreement with the regions and in keeping with their planned 13 matches a year programme.
It will be a chance to see whether those newcomers can go all the way to the next World Cup, if they are in the match-day 22, and even if they aren’t, training in the national environment will be invaluable.
It will also be an opportunity to see why Sam Warburton rather than Rees is now the natural Wales captain, while for those who like some sentiment around Christmas time it will be a chance to wave goodbye to one of Wales’ all-time great players in Shane Williams.