Wales' omission of 'world class' James Davies increasingly baffling

Rassie Erasmus will have to contend with multiple threats to his ruck this weekend.

Image: Tommy Dickson/INPHO

A LIONS YEAR is so often a chance for nations to take advantage of the big-name absentees, lower pressure and decreased limelight.

Particularly for a nation whose head coach has also been called up for a big tour down under, the chance to blood fresh talent is a no-lose situation.

And yet, Wales – a nation admittedly blessed with openside talent – have responded to Sam Warburton and Justin Tipuric’s absence by also leaving the Pro12′s stand-out number seven this season to his own devices while his countrymen tour the Pacific isles this summer.

26-year-old James Davies was nothing short of sensational as Scarlets defeated Leinster last Friday; linking play, smashing rucks, affecting breakdowns and even moving out onto the wing to cover the space vacated by the red-carded Steff Evans.

He’s been building up to a performance like that all season, ever since he won an Olympic silver medal with Team GB Sevens last summer. And each passing week just brings more mystified looks from his Scarlets’ team-mates towards Robin McBryde in Warren Gatland’s seat.

“You’d like to think so,” comes Shingler’s immediate reply when asked if Davies is in line for Test honours.
The issue he’s got is that the coaches clearly don’t like him at that level at the moment. It’s difficult. He’s definitely good enough. I think he’ s by far the best seven Wales have got to offer, but obviously other people don’t see it that way. You’d like to see  him get a chance to see what he can do. but unless someone gives him the opportunity…”

It’s often more revealing to listen to coaches who stand in opposition to a player, rather than one in the same camp..Perhaps that’s more true of the number seven than any other position on the field.

Even after Leinster’s 45 – 9 win over the Scarlets in the spring, Leo Cullen was pointing to Davies’ injury soon after the second half started as a key reason why his side were able to pull away. He made up for lost time last Friday.

As for Rassie Erasmus, Davies has him digging through his memory banks to compare and contrast with the finest opensides he has known.

“In the last game they beat us and they have a world class seven. I would compare him with a lot of guys that I have coached against and not just at the breakdown, I think he is a good carrier, he is just a clever rugby player…and a good winger as well!”

Scarlets breakdown threat doesn’t stop with Davies of course. On top of Shingler, John Barclay, Tadhg Beirne and Ken Owens, Wayne Pivac also has centres who love to get their jackle on, most notably the older Davies brother, Jonathan.

Against Leinster, their breakdown efficiency allowed Scarlets to get plenty of defenders into the defensive line and thwart the off-colour eastern province.

“If you play in the southern hemisphere, most of the clubs, Super Rugby and international teams have a specialist openside flanker,” says Erasmus, “and one of the centres adopts the skills of an openside flanker. And there is always a hooker who can ruck and steal, maybe one of the second-rows.

James Davies celebrates Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

“So at every third or fourth breakdown, there is somebody who can steal the ball. And Scarlets are like that.  They have a second row who can steal on the ground, two loose forwards who can steal on the ground, both centres. It feels like at every breakdown they can put more pressure on it. And we struggled against that when they beat us at Thomond Park. So I wouldn’t say it is a new tactic but they apply it really well. They are tough to handle.

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“You must be accurate. If it is the best openside in the world trying to steal that ball, best centre and winger, if you are accurate in your carries and the clean-outs you probably have a good chance of winning the ball back and some guys are just brilliant at it. Richie McCaw was an example. In my days Neil Back would have been an example.”

For McBryde and Wales this summer, Ellis Jenkins, Josh Navidi, Thomas Young and Ollie Griffiths have been installed as the only openside options necessary. But after a match when most found themselves using the words ‘he’s everywhere’ more than once to relay the impact of the Scarlets seven, Davies will have his teeth gritted and his poaching goggles on in one last effort to sway opinion before Wales set off for Samoa and Tonga.

“He was everywhere,” adds Shingler, “he’s been like that for two, three years now. It’s something we’ve come to expect. He’s one of the best players most games here.

“He’s consistent, so it’s difficult to see how he hasn’t really got into the  (Wales) squad. Losing Warburton and Tipuric, it’s strange that he hasn’t got the opportunity. What more can the guy do?”

Munster will be hoping they don’t find out.

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Sean Farrell

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