Rhys Priestland has chosen to take an eighteen-month sabbatical from international rugby after making the move to Bath.
Priestland was involved mostly as a replacement in the World Cup, so his decision to take a break will have an impact on the squad.
There are several fly-halves who have put their hands up to fill the gap including some who are already capped.
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However, the fly-half hasn’t retired from international rugby, his break is for eighteen months which would mean he would be available for the build-up of the 2019 Rugby World Cup in Japan. At the time of the next World Cup, Priestland will be 32 and possibly considering retirement from the game, depending on injuries and form.
Warren Gatland has always shown a great deal of faith in Priestland, even in times of poor form, so this sabbatical may seem a bit of a betrayal after so much backing.
There does seem to be the hand of Mike Ford behind the call that Priestland is to effectively call time on his Wales career for the foreseeable future.
It’s easy to see Ford’s perspective, his son George is likely to be on England duty rather a lot. For his backup to be away at the same time would be deeply inconvenient.
Priestland’s choice may have been made easier by his history, while the coaching staff have backed him to the hilt, the Welsh public and media have been harsh with Priestland during periods of poor form. He’s been booed, abused on social media and slated in the press.
Sometimes Priestland has been a scapegoat for a poor Wales performance despite playing well. Under those circumstances, it is possible to understand why he could make the decision to take a break from international rugby.
Personally, however, I believe he has effectively retired from international rugby, by taking this break he has opened the door to a gallery of competitors who will have eighteen months to displace him totally.
Anscombe favourite to replace Priestland
Gareth Anscombe is the most likely candidate - only an ankle injury prevented the Cardiff Blues man from going to the RWC in the original squad. He did play two games at fullback for Wales and played well, although he didn’t light the world on fire.
However, he is definitely favoured by the coaching set up, but, it remains to be seen how good Anscombe really is and whether he truly is a ten, not a fullback.
Rhys Patchell is another likely candidate. He has a few previous Welsh caps and is versatile, playing fly-half, centre and full-back. Patchell also fits into the selection policy of using big men, although he is weak defensively. Despite this, he has a huge boot and a nice style of play.
Priestland’s former understudy Steven Shingler could easily fill the gap. Shingler is a very versatile playing fly-half, centre and full-back. With a strong running game and good control, Shingler has looked good for the Scarlets. He’s also no slouch in defence and has an excellent kicking boot, as shown at the weekend when a last-minute long-range penalty from Shingler clinched the game.
Another Priestland understudy, Owen Williams is currently being tempted back to Wales. Currently at Leicester, Williams is an excellent tactical kicker and game controller. He has also developed a running game which he created with some time at inside centre during an injury crisis at Leicester - definitely a man to look out for in the future.
Morgan to fill void?
Utility back Matthew Morgan is very much a live wire ten for Bristol. He has never played fly-half for Wales, his size has always been seen as too easily targeted by opposition centres. However, Morgan is an excellent fly-half and could fill the Priestland's void. I see Morgan’s future as a winger personally but I hope he factors somewhere in Wales' future.
Finally, we must consider a man who needs no introduction. James Hook, a veteran, a legend of 2008’s grand slam Six Nations, and a man clearly on the very periphery of Wales’ thoughts. He is one of the best-running tens to lace on his boots and on his day could outplay almost any fly-half you’d care to name.
However, a lack of faith from the Welsh coaches has clearly affected his game on the international stage, for when Hook does get a shot he seems to get caught trying a bit too hard occasionally.
Hopefully, Hook is given another chance to prove himself though I doubt he will be given it. I feel Rob Howley has no interest in playing him as shown during the World Cup when he was only brought in when all other alternatives had been explored.
Will Priestland ever return to international duty for Wales? Give your opinion in the comment box below!