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Rob Howley left facing a new kind of headache

By South Wales Evening Post  |  Posted: February 12, 2013

Rob Howley faces a big call at second row, with Andrew Coombs (pictured) and Ian Evans impressing against France, while Alun Wyn Jones is expected to be available again, along with back-rower Sam Warburton

Rob Howley faces a big call at second row, with Andrew Coombs (pictured) and Ian Evans impressing against France, while Alun Wyn Jones is expected to be available again, along with back-rower Sam Warburton

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THERE may not be a puff of white smoke from a chimney at Wales's base in the Vale of Glamorgan to signal that a team has been picked for the visit to Rome a week on Saturday.

Rob Howley and his fellow selectors will leave all that to Sacred College of Cardinals as they set about the weighty business of choosing the next pope.

But the rugby congregation in Wales will await Howley's announcement with interest bordering on fascination given the choices the acting head coach has to make ahead of the trip to Italy.

The expected availability of Alun Wyn Jones and Sam Warburton complicates the selection process hugely.

Pick two from three second rows, for instance. Whichever way the call goes, either Jones, Andrew Coombs or Ian Evans is going to be disappointed.

Then there is the requirement to make up a back row when Ryan Jones, Toby Faletau, Justin Tipuric and Sam Warburton are all set to be up for selection. Perhaps Solomon could be drafted onto the panel to assist Howley.

Faletau is probably the first name on Wales's team-sheet but after his display in Paris Ryan Jones has surely joined the ranks of the Untouchables for the game in Italy.

No-one plays like Jones played at Stade de France and finds himself dropped for the next game.

It would contradict every known law of team sport, and particularly the one that says that a player who moves mountains for his side, who inspires them to an against-the-odds victory and lifts everyone around him, has to keep his place for the next match.

Not picking him would send out a message that form doesn't count for anything in this Welsh set-up, that reputation is all important. It would be akin to throwing poison into the mix and Howley would be unwise to go there.

You would go as far as to say that even if Dan Lydiate were coming back for Italy the team management would have to tell him as well that he'd just have to twiddle his thumbs on the bench this time.

That leaves a straight shoot-out between Sam Warburton and Justin Tipuric for the No. 7 jersey. The expectations on Tipuric for the game with France were that high you suspect even Richie McCaw, Michael Jones and David Pocock all rolled into one would have struggled to live up to them.

A fair reading of his performance would be that he gave an impressive account of himself. The match wasn't loose and so Tipuric didn't have many opportunities to shine in attack, but he showed he could do trench warfare as well as anyone.

Twelve tackles, no misses, a turnover, four line-out takes and several carries added up to a no-frills shift from the Trebanos man, exactly what the occasion demanded. It was not a day for all-singing, all-dancing play from a No. 7. The need was to roll up sleeves and help dig Wales out of the hole they were in.

He played his part in the win and it would be harsh if he were moved aside to make way for Warburton, notwithstanding the Blues man being national skipper.

Howley and the other coaches clearly hold Warburton in the highest regard, not just as an openside but as a captain and for the way he conducts himself generally. But Tipuric offered Wales a lot in Paris, and he has the potential to offer even more. If this choice is made on form, the Osprey will nudge it.

At second row the issues are barely less straightforward, with Alun Wyn Jones giving a glimpse of what he offers in the Ospreys' Pro12 game with Ulster last Friday. "He was a man among boys," said the ex-Ospreys head coach Lyn Jones.

"Should he be selected? Too right he should be."

If only life were that simple.

Jones is arguably Wales's top lock, a player who is expected to be near the front of the queue for Lions Test places this summer, and he was in commanding form for the Ospreys prior to damaging a shoulder in the autumn.

He doesn't just offer non-stop industry for 80 minutes every game. He also brings leadership to the table, that priceless commodity that every side craves, particularly in a pressured environment. Even amid the raging passion and intensity of the Six Nations, the Swansea University law graduate manages to keep his cool and point the way forward.

But we go back to basics of team sport and how well Coombs and Ian Evans have played over the first two games: 40 carries between them and 38 tackles. It is hard to imagine any second rows in the championship have worked harder.

Evans is back to his very best, while Coombs brings a back rower's appetite for work to the engine room. There is a reason why Alun Wyn Jones has won 67 caps for Wales and three for the Lions, but there is a fair chance even he might have to play a waiting game.

All of which should delight Howley.

In New Zealand they don't talk about selection problems. Down there, they see them as selection alternatives.

The wider challenge for Wales is not to bask in the afterglow of their win in Paris but to kick on. If they need any incentive to finish the season strongly, they should have taken on board the words of Phillip Matthews on the BBC after England had beaten Ireland in Dublin on Sunday.

"I don't see anything standing between England now and the Grand Slam," said ex-Ireland flanker Matthews.

Somehow, you can't imagine the Wales squad totally endorsing that line ahead of their meeting with England in Cardiff on March 16.

But that is for another day.

In the meantime, Howley's squad will savour their victory in the French capital. Clive Woodward called it one of Wales's greatest results, and the players' joy was almost palpable in their interviews after the game.

From the pit of despair to a dizzying high in the space of a week — what's new for Welsh rugby?

Maybe it is best not to read too much into individual games. But that might not chime with the Welsh psyche. Here, it is all or nothing, sunshine or cloud. Were there points for mood swings, Wales would be Six Nations champs every year.

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