The Wales position troubling Wayne Pivac and the raft of men he’s tried, tested or rejected

Once, it was a selection call that posed no problems for Wales, involving a straightforward decision to pick Dan Lydiate.

Under Warren Gatland, the 2012 Six Nations player of the tournament fitted the blindside’s brief perfectly, not least because of his celebrated tackling skills that allowed opensides or others to slow down opposition ball or turn it over. For Gatland, Lydiate offered physicality in abundance, and the New Zealander couldn’t get enough of him.

He delivered for the coach, too.

Read more: Star who’s repeatedly snubbed by Wales hits milestone

When offensive ploys didn’t work out as they should have, it was invariably the man of impeccable farming stock who rolled up his sleeves and did the tidying up, either by stopping would-be counter-attackers dead in their tracks or making them momentarily hesitate before running down his channel.

The 6ft 4in, 18st 1lb Lydiate also proved adept at the art of clearing out opponents at the breakdown, while he added ballast to defensive mauls. Little wonder Shaun Edwards once called him his favourite player.

When he didn’t play Wales missed him; when he was a doubt for a game they worried. Rewind to 2011 when there was a question mark over whether he’d be bit to face Ireland in the World Cup quarter finals. The mood around the camp at a pre-game press conference was one of deep concern that their top defensive player would be unavailable. History tells us he played and helped inspire one of the great Wales performances under Gatland, with Lydiate putting in 24 tackles without a single miss.

He is still going strong with the Ospreys, of course, after recently returning from a knee injury that sidelined him for a year.

But the old certainty in selection at blindside has gone for Wales. Under Wayne Pivac, they have capped 10 players in the No. 6 jersey over 27 Tests. No other position in the New Zealander’s run-on teams has been tinkered with more.

Injuries have partly been responsible for the turbulence, but sometimes it has come down to selectors’ preferences and whims. When Ellis Jenkins featured against Ireland in February, he became the first Welsh player under Pivac to start at blindside in four consecutive Tests. It counted for only so much, though — a month later the man who had been Wales captain just four games earlier was released from the squad completely.

Even with Josh Navidi available the merry-go-round at six has continued.

At some point it will stop, won’t it? We can’t be totally sure. There again, Pivac, who played in the back-row himself back in the day, will understand the importance of having a top-notch blindside to act as the heartbeat of his side.

Picking the right man and sticking with him can get the dirty jobs sorted and allow others to prosper. Sometimes, even the best blindsides end games without eye-popping reels of highlights, but close examination of their statistics will reveal the graft they have put in so the team can function.

Here are the 10 players Wales have begun Tests with at No. 6 in the Pivac era.

Aaron Wainwright

The first of Pivac’s blindside choices, with Wainwright playing there against Italy and Ireland in the 2020 Six Nations. He also featured in the role against France the following autumn and against Scotland in 2021.

By then, though, Pivac had realised the Dragon’s future lay in another position. “Wayne sees me playing at No. 8,” Wainwright revealed at the start of last year. “What he was saying is he wants a 6 to be a big, physical, defensive sort of prominent figure and sees me more as coming off the base as a No 8 with my footwork and speed.”

Wainwright was thus considered a middle-of-the-back-row option thereafter.

He played there last autumn and against Ireland in the Six Nations that’s just finished before Ross Moriarty returned and then Taulupe Faletau.

Ross Moriarty

The player who has worn the six jersey the most in the Pivac era — six times, for those who like to keep count. Moriarty brings the physical edge the coach has been looking for and is a player who empties the tank as a matter of routine.

He had only one start there in this Six Nations after missing the first two rounds through injury. The Dragon made it into double figures in terms of metres as a carrier and also defended well, only to lose his place as a starter for Wales’ final two matches.

With the edge he brings, he can expect to be there or thereabouts going forward, mind.

Shane Lewis-Hughes

It was the autumn of 2020 and Lewis-Hughes appeared as the new kid on the Test block. There was no shortage of fanfare, either, with Pivac saying: “He’s like a young Alun Wyn Jones.”

Alun Wyn Janes and Shane Lewis-Hughes during training.

The youngster did well, too, standing out in adversity in an injury-hit Wales side.

But it wasn’t enough to secure him a place in the 2021 Six Nations. A serious shoulder injury followed, preventing him from starting for 11 months. He’s had three games since, and needs more minutes again to start climbing the ladder once more.

James Botham

The Cardiff player featured at blindside in the autumn of 2020 but had to wait until the summer of last year for his next Test starts — at openside He has also gave a fine account of himself at No. 8 for Cardiff on their recent tour of South Africa.

An injury place him off limits earlier in the season and he hasn’t figured at all in Test rugby this term, but his versatility makes him an option across the back-row. Would specialising improve his chances as a starter? That’s one for him to figure out.

Dan Lydiate

The chop-tackle king was recalled to face Ireland last year. The former Irish flanker Stephen Ferris didn’t exactly shower him with rose petals beforehand, saying: “I’m not sure about Dan Lydiate, to be honest, I think his best years are behind him and I wouldn’t have any bother saying that to his face.”

It was an odd thing to say because Lydiate had been playing some of his best rugby. The Osprey put in seven tackles in around 10 minutes in a big opening against Ireland, only for the script to go badly wrong, with Lydiate sustaining a knee injury that ruled him out for a year.

Josh Navidi

Injuries haven’t helped him, either. He’s had a couple of major ones that have kept him out for long periods. He figured at No. 6 three times in the 2021 Six Nations title-winning campaign, with Justin Tipuric at openside and Taulupe Faletau at blindside. But Tipuric’s long-term injury saw Navidi line up at No. 7 after he returned from a shoulder problem himself for the final two rounds of the recent Six Nations.

That he can do the blindside job isn’t in doubt.

One of the most selfless players in the game, he is always willing to take on unglamorous jobs and possesses the physicality, tackling ability, carrying skills, intelligence and breakdown quality to make a success of the role.

Josh Turnbull

One of the most wholehearted players in Welsh rugby, he was picked at blindside for the final Test against Argentina in the summer. Turnbull typically gave his all, but a hopelessly deleted Wales were on the wrong end of an emphatic beating, with the Pumas winning the breakdown battle hands down and pretty much every other battle as well.

Now 34, Turnbull may find it hard to find a way back. But he is someone who wouldn’t know a lost cause if it smacked him between the eyes.

Ellis Jenkins

His recovery from injury was one of the feel-good stories of the season, made even better by Jenkins going on to win a Wales recall and a 12th cap more than a thousand days after his 11th Test outing. Three more caps followed before Pivac took the decision to release him from Wales’ Six Nations squad.

There were some who said he wasn’t quick enough to play openside after his injury and wasn’t big enough to play blindside. Jenkins is a team man, though, and it was good to see him back on the field, winning turnovers, making ground with ball in hand and putting in his quota of tackles. Whatever his future, his return from the edge of nowhere, defying the doubters, was something to be proud of. You can read what went wrong for Jenkins here.

Taine Basham

Started at six against Scotland this year to accommodate Jac Morgan at openside. Basham battled hard, as he always does, but the 6ft, 14st 11lb player is more suited to the No. 7 role, where he has wider scope to effect turnovers, offer himself as support for ball carriers and engage in some of his renowned Hollywood carries. With Wales second best at the breakdown against England, he lost his place for the final two rounds of matches. But he has too much talent to stay out of the picture indefinitely.

Seb Davies

Gave a good account of himself at six in the Six Nations game with France earlier this month, when he offered himself as a lineout option, made his tackles and caught the eye with ball in hand. But Wales struggled at the breakdown against Italy, with their clearing-out work highlighted as a problem, and Davies found it hard to put a major stamp on the game.

Could there be change for the first Test against South Africa in the summer? Don’t bet against it.

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