“If I look at the squad, there are eight players in there who are playing the last Six Nations game.”
But not everyone saw those words from Warren Gatland at his press conference this week ahead of Wales’ 2023 Six Nations final against France.
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Most assumed that two or three players would surely say goodbye to the tournament, but eight is a lot. “We have to think about building to the World Cup this year, but we also have to think about 2027,” Gatland continued.
What happened to the idea of constantly rebuilding to ease young players into an experienced team? The problem with this is that sometimes tomorrow never comes and people are reluctant to let go of senior staff, especially if they have done great things in the past, so there may not be enough emphasis on developing the next generation.
Has this kind of thinking led Wales to their current position, with a huge gap between the top stars and young guns and little in between? Some will think so.
Anyway, here are the players Gatland may have had in mind when he said those words.
Alun Wyn Jones (current age: 37)
What a ride Jones has been since making his championship debut in 2007.
Since then, he has been talismanic for Wales.
He still has a fifth World Cup to tick off his to-do list as a player, but it’s hard to imagine making the starting line-up for the 2024 Six Nations. Presumably, the thinking will be that the new kids on the block can be upgraded at age four to develop properly.
Alternative potential: Dafydd Jenkins
Ken Owens (36)
The old warrior has not played Father Time in his favor in this Six Nations.
As captain, he has set a great example, and has often led the way in forwards and tackles.
But if Wales start again next year, Owens may struggle to make the cut, even if he is playing well. The lesson of this cycle is, perhaps, that the sooner young players are introduced to Test rugby and put to bed, the better.
Alternative potential: Lake Dewi
Rhys Webb (34)
Webb showed he still has some work to do with his effort against Italy in Rome. You can read here how the years in Rome rolled back.
It has also been good form for ospreys.
But if national coaches start planning for the 2027 World Cup by the time the autumn event ends, it is likely that Webb will end up as a test player.
He has never played at a world cup, and a good display against France on Saturday would leave him looking for a decent bet for the event starting in September.
Beyond that, it would be hard for him to keep his place.
Alternative potential: Tomos Williams, Scarlets’ Archie Hughes and Harri Williams with longer-term bets.
Leigh Halfpenny (34)
He is nervous in his nineties when it comes to Wales caps, needing just two more to reach his century. It would take a heart of stone not to expect the bravest player to reach this milestone. He will go closer at the Stade de France, and then he has to make the squad for the World Cup warm-ups.
But whether he reaches his ton or not, 2023 is likely to be his last as an international player.
He turns 35 in December and there is more than a chance that he will be without a road in the test terms.
But what a wizard it has been.
Potential defender options: Liam Williams and Louis Rees-Zammit, along with Cameron Winnett and Jacob Beetham, who will be in the mix going forward.
Who will win France and Wales? Have your say here
Dan Biggar (33)
“You better get used to it, because it’s going to be around for the next decade.”
So said Warren Gatland in 2009, when a teenage Dan Biggar was breaking through with absolute self-belief and a desire to speak his mind.
Fourteen years later, Biggar is still going strong, still believing in himself and happy to speak his mind, although the years have given him a touch of diplomacy.
It has been removed several times, but never fully read the notice.
But in October he is 34 years old and plays in France.
It is not inconceivable that he was involved.
But it is not out of the question that he could have finished of his own volition, or given that he has completed the rugby test course.
Potential fly-half options: With Gareth Anscombe (if he doesn’t call time on his Test career after the World Cup), Owen Williams, Rhys Patchell, Callum Sheedy and Sam Davies waiting in line, along with Sam Costelow, Will Reed, Dan Edwards and Joe. Options for Hawkins’ future.
Justin Tipuric (33)
The man in the blue hat doesn’t play like he’s nearing the end of anything.
But he will blow out 34 candles on his birthday cake in August.
The question for the coaches for Tipuric and others listed here is whether he and they are still the best players in their positions. Do managers operate on a campaign-by-campaign basis or do they start a completely new post-World Cup rebuild?
It would be strange to have someone knocking home every week, but Wales weren’t picking him.
Potential options open to you: Jac Morgan, Tommy Reffell and James Botham, Harri Deaves, Dan Davis and maybe even Morgan Morse raising their hands as the next cycle unfolds.
Taulupe Faletau (32)
“God help us when he decides to call it a day.” This is what Dan Biggar of Faletau said last year.
The number 8, who reaches his hundred caps this weekend, has been a great servant for Wales for more than a decade.
It’s hard to see him making it to the 2027 World Cup – hard to see, but not unimaginable – but should that be the signal to wave off into the sunset after the autumn’s global shock?
You wouldn’t think so.
Of course, he can decide to call it a day.
But he’s still so far ahead of his rivals that if he wants to continue, the temptation for the Wales manager next February will be to pick him, then see how he goes season after season, perhaps remembering the old line. That there is more to rugby than the World Cup.
Possible substitutions: Ross Moriarty, Aaron Wainwright, Morgan Morris, Carwyn Tuipulotou, James Ratti.
The eighth man?
Gatland suggested all eight men could play in the final Six Nations games this weekend. With only seven listed above, who could be the last one we see in the tournament?
Wyn Jones is 31 years old, but props can step up and in fact get it at 30 years old. Tomas Francis is a year younger and Jones’s thoughts are on him. In theory, both could have good years.
How about George North?
He is only 30 years old but has been playing Test rugby since 2010 and there have been many injuries. Can he make a call to his future? Or would he decide to go ahead and see if he makes it to 2027?
Looking at the injured players, Liam Williams is 31 years old and the talk of the defender in Japan.
Again, he’s the best at his position, so it seems strange to continue without him next year.
Such are the decisions the Wales manager will face for the 2024 Six Nations.
These are tough calls because all the players listed above have excelled for a long time.
But nothing is forever.
Everyone knows that much in sports.
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