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Sport The massive calls Wayne Pivac needs to make over Wales old guard and their prospects of making the next World Cup

15:30  04 december  2021
15:30  04 december  2021 Source:   walesonline.co.uk

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It's no secret that Wales boast something of an ageing squad.

There are a host of players for whom this will probably be the last World Cup cycle.

Of all the players to have been picked in a Wales squad since Wayne Pivac has taken over, there are currently 23 who have already celebrated their 30th birthday.

Come the World Cup in France in two years time, another 16 players will be have either already crossed that milestone or will indeed be celebrating it in 2023.

Wales' ageing old guard presents something of a conundrum to Pivac.

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While he has taken whatever possible opportunity in the last two years to blood new talent, a lot of those senior figures remain important members of his squad.

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Naturally, that's not a bad thing - but the question always remains on who will make the next World Cup and who will see time catch up with them?

We've looked through the 39 players who will have passed the big 3-0 come 2023 and assessed where exactly they'll be in two years time.

Starting with the crop of players still in their late 20s, there are few players nailed on.

George North is one such player, particularly given how he's presented Pivac with an answer in a 13 jersey that has otherwise been a nuisance in the past year or so.

Ellis Jenkins should be there too, even with the fierce competition for back-row places, while Tomas Francis and Wyn Jones are two props who are well-placed to make the plane.

Such are the age-range of Wales' props, there's more than a few in this category who are up in the air.

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WillGriff John finally made his international debut this autumn. He'll likely be in the mix come 2023 but he's absolutely no certainty.

The same can be said for a number of others, with Rob Evans , Rhodri Jones , Samson Lee and the latest new cap, Gareth Thomas . One or more of them might travel, but the jury is out on which - if any.

Elsewhere in the front-row, hookers Sam Parry and Kirby Myhill have been surprise call-ups under Pivac. It's a position that has thrown up more questions than answers at times but it's hard to see either in France as things stand.

The same goes for second-row Matthew Screech . Even with Wales' loss of experience in the lock department in the last year, there are still too many bodies ahead of the reliable Cardiff second-row.

Thomas Young is an interesting one. Coming to Cardiff will help his cause next year, but he still seems like one of those players destined to shine at club level rather than on the Test stage. Wales have more explosive back-rows cut out for the international game and you sense he'll get lost among those.

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Fly-halves Rhys Patchell and Sam Davies have plenty of work to do to get back into contention. Dragons' playmaker Davies just doesn't seem in the picture, while Scarlets' man Patchell has had woeful luck with injures.

The fact he shone under Pivac previously in Llanelli should give him hope, but the fly-half position is already congested enough as it is.

Elsewhere in the backs, Jonah Holmes would have seemed perfect as a utility player to take the World Cup, given his versatility and rugby brain. However, he's fallen out of favour amid reports he could head back to England. Odds are he won't be in France.

Moving into those already in their 30s, some are already on the plane.

In fact, probably more a couple of years this side of 30 are nailed on than those a couple of years the other.

Josh Navidi is one. Quite simply, if he's fit, he's part of Pivac's squad in France in two years. In fact, he should be wrapped in cotton wool for the next two years, such is his importance to Wales' gameplan.

The same goes for Liam Williams . Minutes on the pitch have been hard for Williams to come by since his return to Llanelli a couple of years ago.

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However, when he does get on the pitch, particularly at Test level, he's world class. Baring something extraordinary, he's the starter in that 15 jersey in France.

You can likely read the same for Taulupe Faletau , Justin Tipuric and Ken Owens . Even if the latter will be 36 come France, it feels like only injury, rather than falling off a cliff form-wise, would keep them out of the action such is their current importance to Pivac.

There will always be questions from certain quarters about Dan Biggar , such is the story of a Welsh fly-half.

But he's another who, all things going well, will be in France.

Who will be the fly-halves alongside him is less unclear, with Gareth Anscombe and Rhys Priestland in contention.

Anscombe is probably the likely bet, with his ceiling perhaps higher after a comeback from a lengthy injury. If he gets back to his best, he's got the quality - and the style of play - to be an asset for Pivac.

Priestland's a little further back, given he'll be 36 at the time of the tournament. On that basis, and the other competition facing him, it's hard to see it happening for him.

Then there are guys who, even if they're not a nailed-on starter right now, seem well placed to be part of the squad.

In the pack, Will Rowlands is certainly just that - with the Dragons lock seemingly likely to be there or thereabouts in the second-row options for the next two years.

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Willis Halaholo is another, given what he can bring to a Welsh midfield lacking playmakers, while Johnny McNicholl can do the same in the back-three.

Wales' back-three might have raw pace and other terrifying skills - but McNicholl has a playmaking ability which Pivac will be fond of.

Leigh Halfpenny's goal-kicking could be another USP that gets him into the squad, but, for the first time in a long time, it feels like he might not be either first-choice or even second-choice for the full-back jersey. Coming back from a major injury might be a bridge too far.

There's also a triumvirate of scrum-halves in their 30s who could all experience different fates.

Gareth Davies , Lloyd Williams and Rhys Webb have all featured at some point under Pivac - but moving forward, it seems likely none of them will be first-choice now.

Having been Warren Gatland's go-to man for a number of years, Davies fallen a little out of favour under Pivac.

He's still likely to go to France - such is the lack of young pretenders coming through to challenge. But it only takes one young buck to emerge in the next 24 months for his seat on the plane to be under threat.

Or even an experienced one.

The recall of Williams last year, four years after his last cap, was something of a surprise.

However, it made perfect sense in practise - with Williams' zippy delivery suiting Wales' gameplan down to the ground.

While he hasn't featured in the Six Nations or autumn squads this year, his presence in the summer squad should keep him in the picture as a fringe choice for a while longer. It'll take something special though to force his way into the 2023 squad.

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Further back still is Webb. Having come back into Wales' squad last year, he's now out of the picture again and doesn't look likely to break back in.

There are, of course, senior players who have featured under Pivac at some point who likely aren't in the picture baring something dramatic.

Bradley Davies and Aaron Shingler will both be 36 in 2023, while Josh Turnbull will be 35.

Davies isn't really in contention at this point, Shingler, while being a Pivac favourite at the Scarlets, has had horrendous luck with injury and illness, and Turnbull, despite earning a deserved call-up in the summer after a stunning spell of rugby, probably will struggle to make it against a host of talented rivals.

The same might be true for Dan Lydiate , but, once over his latest injury sustained in the Six Nations opener, he might have the benefit of being the sort of blindside flanker Pivac needs more of.

That alone gives him more hope, but the 2012 Six Nations player of the tournament is still, at this stage, something of a longshot.

Two more heroes of 2012, Scott Williams and Alex Cuthbert could be a similar story.

Williams has endured an awful few years with injuries, but an impressive run of games on his return to Llanelli has put him back in the picture.

The fact he didn't get onto the pitch at all in the autumn suggests he's a little far back at the moment, but he's got the class to work his way into the frame.

As for Cuthbert, he made a surprising return to the Welsh jersey this autumn after four years away.

Naturally, he marked it with a try. The question now is where he sits in the pecking order. Such is Wales' back-three depth, it's probably still on the fringes as things stand.

And then there is, of course, Wales' current captain, Alun Wyn Jones , and vice-captain, Jonathan Davies .

Starting with the latter, he looked to have emerged as a solid option at 12 during the Six Nations triumph last year - with Pivac recently talking up his performance in the Grand Slam clash with France as phenomenal.

However, he didn't feature there in the autumn - instead moving to his more familiar position of 13 for the first two matches before not featuring at all against Fiji and Australia.

The implication is that he's a 12 first and foremost - but Davies has got his work cut out staying in contention for a squad place such is the unbalanced riches in Wales' midfield at the minutes.

There are a lot of 12s to pick from, but 13 is not so clear. On that basis alone, you wouldn't be putting the mortgage on him making the World Cup - having already had Lions heartache this year.

As for the skipper, from campaign to campaign, the question is raised of whether he can make 2023?

He shows no sign of slowing down and it seems to be his decision above anyone else when his time is up.

But, whisper it quietly, there will be a time when he won't be the force he once was. There's just a good a chance that comes before 2023 than after it.

Getting to another World Cup and being effective at 38 is no mean feat. He has the desire and the drive, but that's only half the battle.

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