Warren Gatland: Wales coach aims for autumn clean sweep

By Gareth GriffithsBBC Sport Wales
'Pretty good result' for Wales - Biggar

Things are looking good for Warren Gatland's Wales at the moment.

A record 74-24 and 10-try victory over Tonga by a supposed second string produced an eighth successive win for the first time in 13 years.

It sets up the prospect of a historic autumn clean sweep. South Africa stand in the way when Wales complete the November Test schedule in Cardiff next week.

Coach Gatland has a selection dilemma for what the New Zealander calls one of the best group of players he has worked with during his 11-year Wales tenure.

His side are third in the global rankings before next year's World Cup in Japan. And Wales are now showing evidence they will be able to compete at the showpiece tournament.

Second best

Too often Wales have failed to impress in the autumn match against tier two nations.

After making 14 changes to the side that beat Australia, Wales' storming start suggested bad memories of games against Samoa, Fiji, Georgia and Japan were a thing of the past.

Not quite as the home side was pegged back by Tonga, who levelled at 24-24 just after the interval.

A shock defeat on the cards maybe? But Wales are a different proposition in 2018 with the increasing strength in depth on display.

They showed their class in the second half with seven more scores in a 10-try rout to stun an under-strength Tonga and notch up 70 points for the first time in seven years.

"If you look at the game in segments we started off exceptionally well," said Gatland.

"We had 20 minutes where we put ourselves in a bit of a hole and dug ourselves out of hit in the second half with some outstanding rugby.

"That group of players would have learned a lot from that experience. It was an outstanding second-half performance and sent out a real positive statement."

Selection issues

Wales' fringe players were hoping to force their way into the starting side against South Africa after those who orchestrated the victories over Scotland and Australia were rested.

"There were a lot of players who impressed," said Gatland.

"As the game went on a lot of those individuals got better and more comfortable, especially in that second half.

Ellis Jenkins
Cardiff Blues' Ellis Jenkins captained Wales against Tonga

"This is the position you want to be in and there's some real questions in terms of picking the squad.

"We've got 40 players in the squad and eight or nine of them are going to miss out on the World Cup. Some players are aware of how important the next six months are.

"It's probably one of the best group of guys we've had since I've been with the squad. No egos, everyone's working hard, the mood in the camp has been brilliant and we're in a good place."

Captain Ellis Jenkins led Wales for the first time at home and encapsulated the situation.

"I don't think there are any players here who would be happy being called second-teamers," said Jenkins.

"Everybody wants to be in the first team and that is the challenge for us."

Battle for number 10

While young players like new cap Jonah Holmes, Owen Watkin, Aaron Wainwright, Seb Davies and Tyler Morgan impressed, experienced campaigners like Jake Ball, Liam Williams and Dan Biggar also auditioned for starting spots against the Springboks.

Williams scored two tries on his 50th Wales cap while man of the match Biggar kicked 19 points.

Gareth Anscombe started against Scotland and Australia and Rhys Patchell marked his replacement return with a brilliant individual try after a break from concussion.

Jonah Holmes and Liam Williams
Jonah Holmes won his first cap against Tonga while Liam Williams was winning his 50th

So Gatland now has three contrasting options at fly-half.

"Dan's goal-kicking was outstanding," said Gatland. "He's had his first run so he'll be happy with that. The pleasing thing with all our 10s is that they're all playing well.

"I've been pleased with Gareth, Rhys was excellent when he came on. In a number of positions, we have some strength in depth and real selection headaches."

Two players who are still not confirmed to be fit for South Africa after missing the Tonga win are British and Irish Lions backs George North (dead leg) and Leigh Halfpenny (concussion).

"We'll assess them," said Gatland. "Leigh has still had some symptoms during the week so we'll see how they are when we come in on Tuesday. George will hopefully have recovered from that haematoma."

Winning run

The Springboks arrive in Cardiff having defeated Scotland 26-20 but with Wales looking for a hat-trick of autumn international victories at the Principality Stadium following home success in 2016 and 2017.

Gatland's side also beat South Africa in Washington DC in June 2018.

"It would be nice to have a clean sweep in the autumn and start thinking about the Six Nations," said Gatland.

"South Africa have gone back to their traditional rugby of big physical players who are direct. It is going to be a real challenge.

"We have had some good success over South Africa in recent years so it will be important for us to build on that.

"So there's a lot to play for. There should be a bit of edge."

Just as Gatland likes it.