Warren Gatland’s return – Five Wales players who could benefit

Warren Gatland is back and having been away for just three years, he will be a familiar face to many in the current Wales squad.

Warren Gatland is back and having been away for just three years, he will be a familiar face to many in the current Wales squad.

The Kiwi’s second spell as head coach begins with immediate effect and top of his in-tray will be preparing his side for their 2023 Guinness Six Nations campaign, which they begin against Ireland on February 4.

Expectations are high but that’s no wonder – Gatland’s Championship record with Wales reads four titles and three Grand Slams across a hugely successful 12-year spell.

Players and coaches often talk of a fresh start when there is a new man at the helm but Gatland will arrive with existing thoughts about those players he has worked with previously – and the 29 players who have been capped since he left the post in 2019.

Here, we consider those players who could benefit from his return.

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Alun Wyn Jones

The only current Wales player to predate Gatland’s first appointment, Alun Wyn Jones still has a lot to offer and Gatland will want to squeeze every last ounce out of the talismanic second row.

Gatland’s predecessor Wayne Pivac did his level best to give opportunities to the Welsh locks of the future, with Jones having started just one of his last five Test appearances.

But you cannot put a price on experience and during a transformative time for Welsh Rugby, Jones’ leadership will be essential.

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Wales’ last-gasp defeat by Australia in their final Autumn Nations Series fixture may have been a bitter pill to swallow, but Jones was superb.

He started like a train – carrying with purpose, offloading like a back half his age and he even notched a try assist, all within the first 10 minutes.

Jones captained Wales for the final Grand Slam of Gatland’s first reign and it would come as no surprise if the new chief were to reinstate his trusted lieutenant for the first assault of his second spell.

Aaron Wainwright

When Wales beat France in the 2019 Rugby World Cup quarter-final, Aaron Wainwright was named Player of the Match and looked set to be a fixture in the Welsh back row for years to come.

Since that tournament, he has made just ten Test starts, flitting between blindside flanker and No.8, and has not started a test for his country since a sobering 29-7 defeat by Ireland in February.

In the aftermath of the World Cup in Japan, when Gatland stepped down as head coach, he earmarked Wainwright as a potential British and Irish Lion for the tour of South Africa in 2021, adding that he could become a “special” player.

Wainwright has some way to go if he is to deliver on that tag but with veterans Justin Tipuric and Taulupe Faletau both the wrong side of 30, Gatland may wish to freshen up his back row.

Still only 25, Wainwright has a lot of rugby ahead of him. If he can stay injury-free, which has prevented his selection at times, he could become one of Gatland’s key men.

Ross Moriarty

The final forward on this list, it’s easy to forget that Ross Moriarty has amassed over 50 international caps.

Gatland was the man who handed him his Wales debut at the age of just 21, and he was behind Moriarty’s call-up to the British and Irish Lions squad in 2017.

He is everything Gatland admires in a back row: combative, hard-hitting and he has a bit of an edge to him as well, never afraid to ruffle a few feathers.

Having been a bit-part player for much of the Pivac reign, he’ll be desperate to prove he has more to give at international level.

Gareth Anscombe

Some fear they may have seen the last of Gareth Anscombe in a Wales shirt, with the versatile back an injury casualty against Australia.

The extent of that knock remains unknown but should the 31-year-old make a swift recovery, he might well be at the front of the queue for the No.10 jersey.

He was Wales’ starting fly-half during their 2019 Grand Slam winning campaign and Gatland made no secret of the fact that he was sorely missed during the World Cup that same year, with Dan Biggar instead fulfilling stand-off duties.

Biggar has excelled since and was Gatland’s pick for the 2021 British and Irish Lions tour, but Anscombe is bound to be involved should he be fit, whether at fly-half or elsewhere in the back line.

Max Llewellyn

Not an obvious name and not one perhaps familiar to many rugby fans, though the stature of this towering centre has shades of a former Gatland favourite.

Jamie Roberts was the first new cap of Gatland’s first reign, and Cardiff’s Max Llewellyn could well claim that honour for this tenure.

At 6ft 5in and 16st 7lb, Llewellyn certainly looks a handful for defenders and scored in Cardiff Rugby’s first win over Munster for four years on the opening day of the United Rugby Championship season in September.

With his size and power, he could reprise the Roberts role and help kickstart what Gatland hopes will be another trophy-laden period at Principality Stadium.