The eight Welsh rugby players who must go to the next level this season as the World Cup looms


Rugby returns next week with Cardiff Blues, Dragons and Ospreys stepping up preparations for the Guinness PRO14 campaign by playing friendly matches.

Blues host Leicester Tigers at the Arm Park, Ospreys face Northampton Saints in Swansea while the Dragons head to London to take on English Championship club Ealing Trailfinders.

And there’s a wave of optimism with the Scarlets, who play their first game the following week, having reached the semi-finals of the glamour Champions Cup and the final of the PRO14, both times losing to crack Irish province Leinster.

Blues lifted Europe’s second-tier Challenge Cup for a second time, the Ospreys have signed Wales trio George North, Scott Williams and Aled Davies while the Dragons have recruited heavily.

What Welsh-qualified players are going to shine next season? Andy Howell picks two from each region he wants to see kick on.

BLUES

Dillon Lewis

Dillon Lewis (right) after a Wales win over Argentina

Made his debut for the Blues during the 2014-15 campaign but has only appeared another 32 times for his home region despite impressing on the international stage.

The tight-head prop has shone in his five outings for Wales and it’s been a mystery why he’s failed to become a first time regular at the Arms Park.

For No.3 has been a problem position for more years than supporters care to remember with the Blues urgently in need of a scrum anchor.

Lewis, 22, and the rest of the Blues squad will start with a clean sheet with new coach John Mulvihill a typical Australian who is likely to pick on what he sees and not reputation.

Wales are in a similar position to the Blues with national coach Warren Gatland wanting a tight-head to stand out this season and seize the red jersey ahead of next year’s World Cup.

Rory Thornton

Rory Thornton has signed for Cardiff Blues
Rory Thornton has signed for Cardiff Blues

This is a big season for the 23-year-old lock forward after his National Dual Contract ended and he moved to the Blues on a year-long loan deal.

Ospreys had given the former Wales Under-20 Thornton a regional contract earlier this year but he has headed east along the M4 following talks between the rival regions and national team management.

Thornton saw his game time limited last season, injury restricting him to just four appearances, and it was agreed the move would give him the best opportunity to get more game time and to assist his international ambitions going into a Rugby World Cup year.

“I need to be playing rugby and the Blues need a lineout forward so this is a great outcome for everyone,” said Thornton.

Blues were short of specialist depth at lock last season and Thornton, who was capped by Wales in Samoa last year, has a perfect platform to strut his stuff alongside another young pretender in Seb Davies.

DRAGONS

Harri Keddie

Harri Keddie’s epic try celebration

The back-rower was reminiscent of a young Scott Quinnell when he lit up the international scene two years ago as Wales charged to a memorable Under-20 Six Nations Grand Slam.

Keddie’s explosive power was telling but injuries have held him back at regional level since he made his debut for the Dragons in 2016.

Shoulder surgery and a head injury kept him out for long spells last term but he enters this campaign with a three-year deal at the Gwent region.

Dragons need ball-carriers up front to get them over the gainline and Keddie has an opportunity to show he can take them forward as they seek to put a traumatic 2017-18 campaign behind them.

And partnering the likes of Wales star Ross Moriarty and the prodigiously talented Ollie Griffiths in the Gwent region’s back-row can only bring him on.

Jordan Williams

Jordan Williams during training with the Dragons

The full-back’s startling running as Wales Under-20s reached the final of the 2013 Under-20 World Cup attracted rave reviews, especially from legendary former New Zealand captain Sean Fitzpatrick.

The All Blacks colossus said he hadn’t seen anything like it since Kiwi running great Christen Cullen ripped defences apart in the late 1990s, scoring 46 tries in 58 Test appearances.

Williams’ counter-attacking and ability to leave opposition defenders floundering also evoked comparisons with tiny terrors Shane Williams and Jason Robinson.

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Gatland took Jordan Williams to South Africa with Wales in 2014 but he failed to pick up a cap and his inconsistent form saw him fail to become an established first teamer at the Scarlets.

A two-year stint with Bristol followed but he has joined the Dragons. Can they get the consistent best out of a player who was described as the most talented to have come through Scarlets’ academy?

If Williams, who will be 25 next month, wants to make a real mark on rugby, it surely has to happen this season.

OSPREYS

Sam Davies

Sam Davies of Ospreys is taken out in the air by Chris Wyles of Saracens.

It’s make or break time for the 2013 World Rugby junior player of the year with ‘Mr Osprey’ Dan Biggar having left for Northampton.

Davies may have made 126 appearances for the Liberty Stadium outfit and been capped eight times by Wales at senior level but there’s always been a feeling he was keeping the No.10 jersey warm for Biggar.

However, the onus and the pressure is now on the son of former Wales captain and ex-Wales backs coach Nigel Davies to deliver on a regular basis.

The left-footer, who is a pinpoint tactical kicker, will have a potentially dynamite back-line outside him in the likes of Scott Williams, Owen Watkin, George North, Keelan Giles and Dan Evans.

Davies, 25 come October, was pushing Biggar hard to be Wales controller in the autumn of 2016 and in the following year’s Six Nations but has since slipped down Gatland’s pecking order.

Can he climb back up it by guiding four-times league champions Ospreys into a position of prominence in the PRO14? The ball is firmly in his court!

Keelan Giles

Keelan Giles lies in agony
Keelan Giles lies in agony

Isn’t likely to return to playing duty for another couple of months as he continues his rehabilitation from the serious ligament injury he suffered against the Dragons last October.

The lethal finisher’s right knee had to be reconstructed by a surgeon after he came off second best during a collision with Ashton Hewitt.

Giles, who is still only 20, was on the brink of full Wales honours in the autumn of 2016 but caretaker coach Rob Howley erred by not starting with him against Japan and declined to use him as a substitute during a nerve-jangling second half.

Injury put Giles, who touched down 14 times for tries in 19 appearances during his first full season for the Ospreys at senior level, out of the reckoning for the 2017 Six Nations and he didn’t figure during summer Tests with Tonga and Samoa because of more muscle problems.

The lightening winger is far more than just a finisher, having an astute rugby brain, being a creator and possessing the knack to turn up in the right place at the right time.

And he’s a player who can light up the Liberty Stadium and Welsh rugby if he can successfully return and get back to his best form.

SCARLETS

Ryan Elias

Ryan Elias on the charge

Welsh rugby is blessed at hooker with Ken Owens, Elliot Dee, Kristian Dacey and Scott Baldwin among those challenging for places in Wales squad for the World Cup.

And Elias is firmly in the mix after starring against South Africa in Washington two months ago, also coming off the bench in the first Test with Argentina and starting the second.

He’s been capped five times and won the lot, which isn’t a win ratio many Wales players can boast.

Elias’ initial goal is to oust Owens from the No.2 jersey at Parc y Scarlets, having deputised for the Scarlets skipper in the final when they were crowned PRO14 champions last year.

The 23-year-old is big and dynamic but needs to push on this campaign if he is to make former All Blacks reserve hooker Gatland’s World Cup party.

Ioan Nicholas

Ioan Nicholas scores for the Scarlets

With Scott Williams having switched to the Scarlets and Jonathan Davies working his way back to fitness following the serious foot injury he sustained against Australia last November, there will be chances in the centre out west.

Throw in the added fact that Hadleigh Parkes has become a key man in the Wales midfield and there’s a real opportunity for Nicholas to make further progress.

The 20-year-old, whose cousin is top referee Nigel Owens, is the second youngest player to feature for the Scarlets regional team behind a certain George North.

Pontyberem product Nicholas was just 17 when he made his debut and has gone on to make 14 appearances in the PRO14, scoring four tries.

He was also a mainstay in the Wales Under-20 team last season and is being talked of as a potential starter during the 2023 senior World Cup.

The next step for him is to prove he’s a viable challenger to Parkes and Davies in the Scarlets midfield.



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