The Next Generation – Wales Rugby Breakthrough Players to Watch

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Newport Gwent Dragons v Edinburgh Rugby - Guinness Pro12
NEWPORT, WALES - NOVEMBER 27: Newport Gwent Dragons' Ollie Griffiths under pressure from Edinburgh's Ben Toolis during the Guinness PRO12 Round 9 match between Newport Gwent Dragons and Edinburgh Rugby at Rodney Parade on November 27, 2016 in Newport, Wales. (Photo by Simon King - CameraSport via Getty Images)

With a new season commencing, and Wales’ Coach Warren Gatland’s return from another successful British and Irish Lions Tour, it would be interesting to identify some of the young talent that may be Wales rugby breakthrough players to watch in 2017/18.

This article intends to also apply context, and consider the feasibility of a number of these prospects breaking into the Wales squad in the short term, considering current incumbents in those positions. And what better place to start, then up front!

Forwards

In the pack it is probably safe to work on assumptions regarding players such as Rob Evans (25) and Sampson Lee (24) at prop. The same could be said of the Lions back row of Warburton (28), Faletau (26), Moriarity (23) and Tipuric (28). Therefore leaving potential opportunities for breakthroughs at Hooker and Second Row.

Front Row Options – Fresh Faces Bursting onto the Scene

Within the front row Rob Evans is developing into a world-class prop. With power, mobility, and as demonstrated in the Scarlets’ Pro12 victory, superb skills in open play. At tighthead, Sampson Lee has the potential to lock the Welsh scrum long term. Behind Sampson however are youngsters such as the destructive scrummager Dillon Lewis (21) and the carrying power and mobility of Leon Brown (20). Both may very soon be putting pressure on their more senior peers.

Hooker is where opportunity may quickly arise for youth to break into the Welsh 23. With Ken Owens (30) returning from a successful Lions tour, competition for the 16 shirt may prove interesting. Christian Dacey (28), Elliot Dee (23), Scott Otten (23) and Ryan Elias (22) could all stake a claim for selection.

Considering the options, Gatland may hold a specific focus on:

Ryan Elias (Scarlets) – At 6ft 2 and 17st, a big unit and a huge talent, with the mobility and physicality to quickly step up to International Rugby, a lot will depend on his game time at Scarlets this season, but could prove to be a big breakthrough player this season.

Elliot Dee (Dragons) – With injury frustrations behind him, Dee should kick on this season. An athletic and mobile hooker, skillful with the ball. A strong set piece coupled with a physical edge to his play. He could really prosper under tutelage of former Ireland hooker Bernard Jackman at the Dragons.

Second-Row

With the legend, and current Wales team captain Alun Wyn Jones (31) entering his prime, it is integral to create a succession plan. To add strength to the set up, there is opportunity for some to really develop under his tutelage.

Current squad members are Bradley Davies (30), Jake Ball (), Luke Charteris (34), Cory Hill (25). Potential opportunity could soon arise for one, or if not both of them.

Adam Beard (21 – Ospreys) A huge (6ft 8, 18st) presence, Beard has the physicality for international game, and has demonstrated a streak of aggression which if focused, would be a valuable attribute. (link)

Seb Davies (21 – Cardiff Blues) A back row or second row, was also recently capped on Wales’ tour in the Summer. An athletic modern forward, confident with the ball and quick over the ground. (link)

“He does certain things that just stand out.”

“His offloading ability out of the tackle is something that doesn’t come naturally to a lot of players. It does to Seb” says Robin McBride, Wales Forward Coach.

Back-Row

An abundance of potential talent in the back row, is available for Gatland to appraise. Short term opportunity may prove limited though, with the calibre of current Wales players. With no doubts behind that Tom Young (25), Ellis Jenkins (24) and Ollie Griffiths (22) are also international quality.

In addition to these three number sevens, Olly Cracknell (23) would offer workrate, physicality and power in abundance. Additionally the dynamic carrying of Harri Keddie (21) has already been highlighted by Welsh coaching staff. 2 possibilities in short term could be:

Olly Cracknell (Ospreys) A physical presence. It will be interesting to see what game time is available to him this season at the Ospreys, and if he leapfrogs Lion Dan Lydiate at 6. That will more than likely dictate his ability to kick on this year.

Ollie Griffiths (Dragons) Exceptional player, who cleared the board as Dragons Players’, Coaches and Supporters’ Player of the Season. ‘Warburton like’ over the ball, yet skillful, explosive and dynamic with it.

His rise may be influenced by whether he plays at 6 or even 8 this season. His run at 8 towards end of last season resulted in touring with Wales in that position.

“Ollie is certainly the complete package of a professional rugby player.”

“He has got it all..he can jump in the lineout, tackle, contest, has great understanding of the game and the way that he prepares himself is one of the best that I have seen.” (Kingsley Jones, Dragons Head Coach)

Backline

One of the key debates has been the Welsh coaching team’s desire to implement a shift in playing style. This, and the dilution of Jamie Roberts (30) as the midfield focus point, will be central to who could be promoted.

Current assumptions are that the Lions players will continue to predominately hold their positions in the XV, with midfield containing Lions’ Player of Series Jonathan Davies (29) and Scott Williams (26).

Half Backs – Limited Opportunity

Back up to Rhys Webb (28) at nine remains competitive, with Aled Davies (25) and Tomos Williams (22) possibly pressuring Gareth Davies (26). At fly-half Sam Davies (23) now appears favored back up to the excellent Dan Biggar (27) over Gareth Anscombe (26). However, Owain Williams’ (25) future remains intriguing, and whether seen as a 10, or a play making 12–so out of those candidates, the ones to keep an eye on would be:

Tomos Williams (Blues) May pressure Lloyd Williams (27) for the Blues 9 shirt this season, and Welsh recognition accordingly. Scored one of best tries of last season, albeit disallowed, demonstrating his undoubted ability.

Centre Pairing

Is the current Scarlets partnership immovable in Wales red? With the 12 and 13 shirts being potentially sewn up by Scarlets pair Jon Davies and Scott Williams, it is interesting to assess what is behind them.

At 12, the aforementioned Owain Williams may provide interesting options for change in structure. As a second playmaker, he would offer an alternative passing and attacking kicking option. Additionally the return to fitness of Osprey’s Owen Watkin (20), a physical presence in midfield, with strong range of passing skills, Watkin could well be a long term option at 12 for Wales.

Whilst at 13, the coming season will be a big one for Tyler Morgan (21). Quick and skillful, it will be interesting to see how he develops this year, potentially outside Gavin Henson.

Outside Backs

The Lions tour of New Zealand provided Liam Williams (26) with the opportunity to showcase his undoubted talent, and Lee Halfpenny’s (28) move to Scarlets will hopefully free up Liam’s attacking game too.

That being said, the remaining wing slot remains likely George North’s (25) to lose. With Alex Cuthbert (27) slowly returning to form at the Blues, the options are there to digest. Behind those four Lions players are strong candidates, who’s opportunities this season will dictate their progress.

The players that are already around the Welsh set up include Steff Evans (22), Ashton Hewitt (22) and Hallam Amos (22). After injury playing for Wales, Amos’ return will also provide an alternative footballing option at 15. These are supplemented by Keelan Giles (19) and Rhun Williams (20).

Giles offers genuine pace on the outside of any defense, and Williams, like Amos offers versatility. Two to watch would be:

Steff Evans (Scarlets) – Capped on Wales summer tour, and scoring a brace vs Tonga. An elusive runner, with superb change of pace and direction, coupled with an ability to run great attacking lines off teammates. Could potentially pressure North, Cuthbert and Amos for Wales shirt.

Ashton Hewitt (Dragons) – A long term concussion prevented Hewitt from taking his place in the National squad for the 2017 Six Nations. An X-Factor player, who’s pace, agility and ability to step off both feet, results in him consistently beating the first defender with ease. A natural finisher with a big future.

Wales Rugby Breakthrough Players to Watch – LWOR Conclusion

The development pathway of Welsh Rugby continues to produce players of undoubted international potential. As with all young players, their carefully managed exposure to top level Domestic and European Rugby is crucial to unlocking their potential.

However, despite the obvious excitement that comes with examining Wales rugby breakthrough players to watch, a review of current age-profile of the Wales team paints an interesting picture.

The majority of the first choice XV are in their ‘prime’ age category, and capable of still playing by the time of 2021 British and Irish Lions Tour to South Africa. This may limit opportunity in many areas, but it should not prevent the gradual introduction of this new generation; to ensure they are ready for the demands of international game.

In terms of International breakthroughs for Wales this season, it is feasible that Steff Evans, Adam Beard, Ollie Griffiths and Ryan Elias could well overtake current squad incumbents in the Autumn internationals. Mind you, the initial weeks of the domestic season, and those players ability to appear regularly, will clearly influence the decision of Warren Gatland and the Wales team selectors.

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Located in Newport, South Wales, Brad Hayward is a keen Rugby enthusiast and volunteer within his local community.

A WRU qualified Rugby Coach for Mini and Junior Age Grade Rugby, he currently coaches a Regional Girls’ Cluster and at local Club level, remaining ambitious to continue to develop his coaching potential.

A devoted Supporter of the Dragons Regional pro team, and the semi-pro and amateur Rugby Club’s within the Region, Brad was one of the founders, and current Chairman of the Dragons Official Supporters Club. This organisation is dedicated to supporting the game at all levels within the Dragon’s Region.

Additionally Brad volunteers in a number of roles within the Welsh Rugby Union, supporting the ongoing development and promotion of the Game in Wales.

A retired Engineering Officer from the Royal Air Force, Brad has now resettled his family of a wife and 2 sons in South Wales after 18 years located around the country, and is now employed within the Ministry of Defence in Bristol.

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