Rob Howley gave an insight into his thoughts on Wales’ selection policy during an interview with Scrum V over the weekend.
Howley, who has been named as Wales’ interim head coach while Warren Gatland takes charge of the British and Irish Lions, plans to adhere to the policy of favouring those players who ply their trade for the Welsh Regions when it comes to selection for the national team. There are a number of so-called “wild-card” selections open to him, whereby he may choose up to three Wales qualified players who are tied to overseas clubs. However, despite this, it seems highly likely that some big names in Welsh rugby will miss out on selection for the Autumn Series. Some reports in the Welsh Media have already indicated Rhys Priestland could find himself omitted, having struggled to nail down a starting spot for Bath in the last year.
I must say, I have mixed feelings about this policy. The idea first came about during the rather tense negotiations on funding between the Welsh Regions and the WRU, and is essentially one of several measures drawn up to help the regional clubs keep their key players playing in Wales. National Dual Contracts were also introduced to this end, with the regions and the WRU able to offer a combined deal to a number of core players, in return for full availability for all test matches, without the regional teams having to foot the bill.
My concern is that, as a nation, we do not yet have the luxury of being able to select a really strong test-match squad entirely (or, almost entirely) from within the four regions.
Take, for example, the Wales tour match against the Waikato Chiefs in June. A strong-looking Wales side, with some fringe players included, was absolutely blown away by one of New Zealand’s provincial teams. It could be argued that the difference in class has arisen from the standard of the Welsh regions, all of whom had disappointing Pro12 campaigns last year.
I do think the tide is turning. The appointment of Cardiff Blues’ backs coach Matt Sherratt is, in my opinion, a stroke of genius for the upcoming Wales series. He has been superb since arriving at the Blues over the summer, and has given the back line a real razor sharp edge. He will share his coaching duties with Wales and the Blues throughout November.
Meanwhile, both Ospreys and Blues seem to have a real hunger to climb the league this year, while I believe it can certainly be said that all four regions are committed to developing young talent within the squad (take exciting Ospreys winger Keelan Giles, and Blues scrum-half Tomos Williams). These are surely Wales test stars of the future. In the long term, the future looks bright.
Obviously it is very important to provide an incentive to our best players to stay in Wales, to play regional rugby. That’s what gets the crowds in, after all. However, I’m not convinced that the current selection policy is the answer. This November, can we really see a Wales team shorn of Jamie Roberts, George North, Leigh Halfpenny or Taulupe Faletau? And, if so, what is the incentive for the fans to go and watch a Wales team missing some of our biggest and brightest stars?