Warren Gatland's huge Wales gamble and why he's done it

-Credit: (Image: Huw Evans Picture Agency Ltd)
-Credit: (Image: Huw Evans Picture Agency Ltd)


When Warren Gatland named his extended summer squad on Monday, the return of experienced pair Liam Williams and Cory Hill along with the selection of four uncapped players was the immediate talking point.

Secondly, it was the omissions of in-form Ospreys forwards Nicky Smith and Morgan Morris, a decision which caused outcry on social media, but 24 hours on by far the most interesting dimension to Gatland's squad is in the number 10 position. Gatland's decision to select only one out-and-out number 10 in his squad is a gamble but in the long run it could pay off.

Sam Costelow had a rough ride during the Six Nations but his performances weren't bad by any stretch of the imagination and it appears the Scarlets man will be Gatland's first choice number 10 as he builds towards the 2027 Rugby World Cup in Australia. Costelow remains a work in progress but the Wales management are big admirers of the 23-year-old and are confident he will develop into a top-end Test fly-half.

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Costelow's all-round game is fairly good, although his error rate is a bit too high at the moment, but he challenges the line, has a good kicking game and can bring others into proceedings, but what sets him apart is his bravery. He's not the biggest outside-half but the man from Pencoed is one of the best defensive number 10s around and constantly puts his body on the line.

Following Wales' World Cup warm-up victory over England in Cardiff last August the Welsh Rugby Union released a behind-the-scenes clip of a team meeting where Costelow shows the confidence to take the lead from a tactical perspective, strongly urging his team-mates not to allow Freddie Steward easy ins into the game. Those who have coached the young Scarlet, or played with him, speak of his mental toughness and his unrelenting work ethic, two traits Gatland has always valued in any player he has coached.

Yes, Costelow is not the finished product and yes his performances do need to go up a notch or two but Gatland clearly believes he is made of the right stuff, and with more time in the saddle at Test level there is every reason to be confident he will make the grade. But why has Gatland only selected one outside-half in his squad?

The New Zealander picked the mercurial Ioan Lloyd in his Six Nations squad. Lloyd is one of the most naturally gifted footballers in Wales and showed flashes of brilliance during the Six Nations but it was a steep learning curve for the 23-year-old.

Lloyd's game is a high risk one and there is no doubt he can hurt the best defences at Test level but there are questions marks surrounding both his game management and his defensive duties. But in yesterday's press conference Gatland wasn't shy in coming forward with answers and he was clear that Lloyd's omission is partly down to size, or the lack of it.

"There's some good young 10s in Wales at the moment but they are not big," said Gatland. "They are quite small so we are looking for a different type of 10 with potentially a different type of stature."

Historically Gatland has always had some decent size in the number 10 channel, with the likes of Stephen Jones, James Hook and Dan Biggar, all players who never shirked the defensive side of things and didn't get shoved backwards in contact. When Gatland held court at the Vale yesterday he confirmed the other two number 10 options in his squad were Jacob Beetham and Ben Thomas.

At 6ft 1ins and 13st 7lb, Beetham certainly has the size Gatland is after while his Cardiff team-mate Thomas is 6ft and 14st 202lb. The 23-year-old Beetham is a very talented footballer who is strong defensively, can get over the gainline and has a long-range kicking game.

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Thomas had a fine game for Cardiff at outside-half against the Lions a few weeks ago but has played most of his rugby at inside centre. The 25-year-old has arguably been the form back in Wales this season and offers something a little bit different to all the other options.

Cardiff head coach Matt Sherratt recently described Thomas as a "shot caller", while he also praised how much he has grown as a leader. Thomas is a very talented footballer with an excellent kicking game and is one of the best passers of the ball in Welsh rugby.

The twice-capped Thomas tore the Ospreys to shreds at times during Judgement Day and is a player with significant peripheral vision. While Beetham has been mentioned as an option at 10, Thomas is the more likely threat to Costelow's place.

But the biggest problem Gatland has moving forward is that his opinions are clearly not aligned with those of Cardiff boss Sherratt. Speaking on WalesOnline's Welsh Rugby Podcast recently Sherratt said he saw Beetham as a 15, while the fact he has signed Callum Sheedy from Bristol and has South African Tinus de Beer on the books indicates he sees Thomas as a centre.

If either player is to make an impact at outside-half on the international stage they really need to be playing regularly in that position at club level. As of next season Gatland will be able to call upon the experience of Gareth Anscombe, provided he goes well at Gloucester, while Sheedy and the up and coming Ospreys playmaker Dan Edwards could also be options moving forward.

Selection is a matter of opinion and Sherratt has every right to disagree with the national coach but if Gatland wants to develop both Beetham and Thomas as serious fly-half options for Wales then this could be a problem moving forward.