Warren Gatland: Wales absences a great opportunity for other players to step up

Wales are without a host of players for this weekend’s clash with world champions South Africa.

Wales head coach Warren Gatland is without a number of players
Wales head coach Warren Gatland is without a number of players (Ben Birchall/PA)

Warren Gatland readily accepts that Wales’ backs are against the wall as they prepare to tackle world champions South Africa at Twickenham on Saturday.

But the Wales head coach believes players have a chance “to step up” after seeing his selection hand forced by injuries and unavailability.

The latest injury blow came with flanker Jac Morgan being ruled out of the Springboks clash and summer tour to Australia.

Wales must to do without the injured Jac Morgan
Wales must to do without the injured Jac Morgan

Morgan, who was Wales’ World Cup co-captain with Dewi Lake last year, missed this season’s Six Nations because of a knee injury.

But he now has a hamstring problem that he suffered during Ospreys’ United Rugby Championship quarter-final defeat against Munster earlier this month, with the Welsh Rugby Union confirming he had been released from the squad.

Wales are also without several England-based players – the likes of Nick Tompkins, Dafydd Jenkins and Tommy Reffell – because Saturday’s game falls outside World Rugby’s summer Test window and means they cannot be considered for selection.

And they have been badly hit in the second-row department, with Six Nations skipper Jenkins and his Exeter colleague Christ Tshiunza both unavailable, Will Rowlands being rested and Adam Beard injured.

“We have our backs to the wall a little bit this week, but we are really excited about the challenge,” Gatland said.

“I see it as a great opportunity for other players to step up and put their hands up.

“I don’t see it any different to when I arrived in 2008 and was asked by Roger Lewis (then WRU chief executive) ‘who do you want to play’? I said any time we can play a southern hemisphere team we need to jump at that chance.

“That is the way you improve. Not just in rugby, but any sport, by playing against the best. That is the biggest part of the development.

“I look back at my own experience as a young player coming through and playing against Auckland, who were one of the best teams in the world and full of All Blacks.

“As a young Waikato player they put 40 points on us, and the amount I learnt as a player was part of my growth and development.

“Test match rugby is tough and physical – you have got to be able to handle adversity. You have to go through that pain sometimes and be able to come out the other side.

“There is nothing wrong with that. You have to be brave and overcome your fear factor.

“You are going out there and playing against big men, and it is going to hurt and you have to go through some pain.

“There are lots of things about playing at the top level. It’s tough and there are going to be lots of different emotions and things to challenge yourself on.”

On Morgan’s absence, Gatland added: “He is pretty gutted. He felt it (hamstring) being a bit tight, so we have just been looking after him.

“Unfortunately, yesterday he felt it being really tight, so we just got him scanned and he has been ruled out.

Dewi Lake will captain Wales against South Africa
Dewi Lake will captain Wales against South Africa (Joe Giddens/PA)

“He is very disappointed but it gives him an opportunity to get a good pre-season in, have a rest and start thinking about later on in the year.”

Hooker Lake, who also sat out the Six Nations due to injury, will be captain against South Africa, with James Botham wearing the number seven shirt and lining up in a back-row that also includes Taine Plumtree and Aaron Wainwright.

Cardiff scrum-half Ellis Bevan is handed a Test debut, while Liam Williams makes a first Wales appearance since the 2023 World Cup.

Williams, who missed this season’s Six Nations due to club commitments in Japan, returns alongside back-three colleagues Cameron Winnett and Rio Dyer.

And Dragons pair Matthew Screech and Ben Carter form the second-row partnership. Screech, 31, made his only previous Wales appearance as a replacement against Argentina in 2021.

There are three uncapped players on the bench, meanwhile, in Ospreys forward James Ratti, Scarlets centre Eddie James and Cardiff back Jacob Beetham.