Are Wales really trying to evolve?

Warren Gatland. Photo: Getty Images
Warren Gatland. Photo: Getty Images
There's an element of foxing, with Warren Gatland attempting to take heat off his under-pressure team, but it does appear Wales are attempting to evolve.

Depending on midfield selections this week, that should bring more width than previously seen from the locals against the All Blacks.

Gatland has spoken at length about his "two-year plan" between now and the World Cup, one that conveniently allows him breathing space as it comes with the request for time and patience.

That's not something the All Blacks will ever be afforded – demands are they not just win every match, but perform to expectations.

After defeat to the Wallabies and the unconvincing 13-6 win over Georgia that featured scrum controversy during the closing stages at home this month, Gatland has managed to deflect attention, for now.

Prior to this weekend at least, the genuine part of the equation is the quest for more rounded skills from his midfield.

Without inflaming the touchy 'Warrenball' saga, Gatland had gone away from hard-running second five-eighth Jamie Roberts. That's partly because Roberts is aging, and partly because world rugby is moving towards rewarding a more attacking, expansive style.

With that in mind, Gatland handed Gloucester's Owen Williams his maiden start at second-five against Australia two weeks ago. Former Blues and Hurricanes midfielder Hadleigh Parkes is also expected to debut against South Africa next week.

But with Wales now without classy centre Jonathan Davies, who starred on the Lions tour, Gatland has to decide whether he sticks with Williams or recalls Roberts this week.

If he is true to his word of chasing a width game, Gatland will back Williams. Reverting to Roberts may provide an experienced stopgap measure, but it does not fit his supposed vision.

Word from insiders suggests Roberts is set for a recall, possibly outside Williams in the unfamiliar centre role.

"If they're consistent with what they've been saying it will be Owen and Scott Williams," All Blacks assistant coach Ian Foster said. "We can only go on what has come out of their camp and also what we've seen the last two games. There has been some changes. We've discussed that, but at the end of the day some things don't change.

"It's going to a very physical rugby game, we know that. We know it's about the collision areas when you play Wales and it's about the physicality. Those are things that still have to stay high on our list."

Williams also brings another dynamic; a second ball-playing option outside favoured first-five Dan Biggar who tends to stand deep in the pocket. If Gatland is really bold he will start in-form No 10 Rhys Priestland and support his running ability.

After starting the direct Ben Te'o at No 12 in the first Lions test, Gatland switched to dual playmakers, Jonathan Sexton and Owen Farrell. Their partnership found success, and upon returning to Wales, may have prompted Gatland to re-think his midfield strategy there, too.

Biggar and Williams aren't in the same class as Sexton and Farrell but could adopt a similar style.

Scotland, largely on the back of Finn Russell's crisp passing game, played from depth and created space through backdoor plays that allowed Stuart Hogg's pace to seriously trouble the All Blacks on the edge last week at Murrayfield.

Even without Davies and elusive Lions fullback Liam Williams, also out with injury, Wales may attempt to do likewise.

This tactic is, however, not without risk. A wider game forces big men to pass in traffic, under pressure, and cover additional ground to get to breakdowns. Adjusting to this style takes time, and potentially exposes other areas.

"It's no different to most other teams at the moment – most teams have midfielders who are trying to evolve their skill set and not just trying to be good really good at one thing but have two or three different options. We're in the same boat," Foster said.

"We've heard about what they're trying to achieve and seen a couple of games. I thought they played pretty well against Australia for large spells and they seem to be reasonably positive about how they went so if that's an indication there is going to be a little bit more width to their game but it doesn't change the fact that with width comes a massive amount of pressure to make sure you're defending up the middle as well. It's not like there's only one option available.

"We're trying not to go in with too many preconceived ideas about the past or the future and just look at the here and now."

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