The big selection calls facing Warren Gatland ahead of South Africa clash

Kieran Hardy has an opportunity to come through and stake a serious claim for the nine jersey this summer
-Credit: (Image: Chris Fairweather/Huw Evans Agency)

In just six days time, Wales begin their summer campaign against world champions South Africa at Twickenham.

Due to the game falling outside of World Rugby's designated international window, Warren Gatland will be without the services of his English-based players. This inevitably means there will be opportunities against South Africa for other less fancied players to rise up the Wales food chain.

It's safe to say Gatland has some tough selections to make to ensure Wales are at least competitive against a formidable Springboks squad. Rugby correspondent Steffan Thomas takes a look at the big selection calls facing Gatland ahead of next Saturday's Test match.

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Where to play Liam Williams?

The return of the 94-times capped Williams is a huge boost for Wales. Williams missed the Six Nations due to the fact he now plies his trade for Japanese club Kubota Spears.

Wales were short of experience in the backline during the Six Nations so that is the first thing Williams will add this summer, which will be more pertinent given Josh Adams has understandably been given the summer off. But the question is where to play Williams?

Yes, it was a poor Six Nations from a results perspective, but Cameron Winnett rose above the mediocrity to stamp his mark on the international game. The 21-year-old was cool, calm and collected with his aerial game along with his positional play being a real plus point for Wales.

Williams' best position is full-back but it would be harsh to drop Winnett and it may be a case of Wales getting their best players onto the field. Gatland could field a back three of Winnett, Mason Grady and Keelan Giles but he probably needs Williams' aerial prowess in there.

Most Test matches are won in the middle third and given the Springboks put so much emphasis on the kicking game, it makes sense to have both Winnett and Williams in the same back line.

How best to utilise Ben Thomas?

When Gatland held court with the media a fortnight ago to explain his summer squad selections, he gave off the impression he was busting a gut to include Ben Thomas somewhere in his backline. Thomas has arguably been the form back in Wales this season and offers a different attacking dimension to anyone else with his distribution and peripheral vision.

But the question is where to play him? The 25-year-old has played the vast majority of his rugby at inside centre for Cardiff but Gatland has previously alluded to the fact he'd like to see him get some rugby under his belt in the number 10 jersey.

Of course, Wales could deploy the Cardiffian as a Southern Hemisphere style second five-eighth. He has the skills for it, but then the 10/12 channel would probably lack physicality against a sizeable South African backline. With that in mind it's likely to be a case of selecting either Thomas or the incumbent Sam Costelow at number 10 against South Africa.

The Wales management have a lot of time for Costelow, who endured a rough Six Nations but has all the attributes to really reach the heights on the international circuit over the coming seasons. Thomas would offer something a little different to the Scarlets man in that he's a little more creative but this is a big call.

It's likely to be a choice between Thomas starting at outside-half or sitting on the bench rather than lining up in midfield.

Davies or Hardy at 9?

The experienced Gareth Davies is the strong favourite to wear the number nine shirt against the world champions despite getting dropped during the Six Nations. Davies' form has been good for the Scarlets of late and despite his age, he remains a deadly attacking threat while his line-speed in defence has always been a big plus point.

With Tomos Williams missing due to injury, Kieran Hardy is Davies' biggest threat to wearing the number nine jersey against both the Springboks and the Wallabies. The Ospreys bound scrum-half has a sharper service than Davies while his box kicking and game management aren't weaknesses.

Hardy has been around the Wales set-up for a while having won 21 caps and now feels the right time for the 28-year-old to push on and take his game to the next level. Williams will very likely be Wales' first choice scrum-half at the 2027 Rugby World Cup and, while it would be foolish to rule out Davies, at 33 he is approaching the end of his career.

Gatland could really do with another number nine to come through and stake a serious claim to become Wales' first choice number nine. Hardy and the uncapped Ellis Bevan will get an opportunity to do that this summer.

A second-row crisis or an opportunity?

Wales are down to the bare bones in the second-row department against South Africa due to the fact this Test match falls outside of World Rugby's designated international window. Gatland is without seven locks for next Saturday's clash against the strongest pack of forwards on the planet.

It's not ideal but it will present an opportunity for other players to stake a claim moving forward. Dragons lock Ben Carter made a fast start to his international career but injuries have held the 11-cap international back over the past couple of seasons.

The team hasn't been named yet but given the players missing, Carter has to be the strong favourite to start and what an opportunity it would be. Perform well against the Springboks as a lock and Gatland will know for sure he is international class.

But who partners him? Gatland has recalled Cory Hill and believes he can play a big part for Wales moving forward towards the Rugby World Cup in three years' time.

But a big issue could be the fact he plies his trade for Secom Rugguts who play in the fourth tier of Japanese rugby. That's hardly the best preparation for going head-to-head with the likes of Eben Etzebeth.

So, does Gatland throw Hill straight in from the start hoping his class shines through, or does he reward Matthew Screech for his performances at regional level without knowing whether the 31-year-old truly has what it takes to make an impact against the Springboks? The only other option would be to move Taine Plumtree from the back-row into the boilerhouse.

This is another big call.

Experience or youthful exuberance at prop?

Gatland has previously gone on record as identifying the scrum as an area in need of fixing after Wales' disappointing Six Nations campaign. Keiron Assiratti has shown glimpses of what he is capable of but needs to find consistency in his scrummaging, although the Cardiff tighthead is definitely worth persevering with.

Dillon Lewis and Archie Griffin will be unavailable next Saturday due to the fact they are contracted to English clubs meaning Assiratti, Harri O'Connor and Henry Thomas are the options to face South Africa. Thomas is by far the more experienced tighthead who has excelled in the scrum and around the park at a very high level in both the English Premiership and the French Top 14.

Does Gatland stick with Assiratti from the start or go for the experience of Thomas?