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Biggar back as the Dan in the stand as Priestland returns; THE AUTUMN SERIES: WALES v S AFRICA.

Byline: Simon Thomas Rugby correspondent simon.thomas@walesonline.co.uk

IF Dan Biggar needed any further proof about the cut-throat nature of sporting selection, it was provided by the announcement of the Wales team to face South Africa this weekend.

The Ospreys fly-half has already suffered through its vagaries once this year, having been the only member of the Six Nations title-clinching team to miss out on the Lions tour.

Now he finds himself omitted altogether from the group chosen to take on the Springboks, with Rhys Priestland given the nod at No.10 and the versatile James Hook providing cover on the bench.

In the space of eight months, Biggar has gone from the man in possession to the man in the stand. It's tough on the 24-year-old who did a fine job during the triumphant championship campaign, growing in stature and assurance after a shaky start in the defeat to Ireland.

He was the man who effectively sparked the turnaround in Wales' fortunes, putting in the pinpoint kick to set up George North's match-winning try against France and he went on to play an increasingly pivotal role.

He's also been in fine form for his region this season. He's scored all 25 of their points in Europe, with his display against Northampton being quite simply immense.

Seldom can a player have given any more than he did at Franklin's Gardens, as he strained every sinew to try and keep his team in the game, carrying the ball with huge determination and throwing himself into tackles.

He's also shown his adaptability of late, standing in as full-back and somewhat revolutionising the role, touching the ball a remarkable 37 times against the Dragons.

But nevertheless, he now finds himself surplus to requirements for Saturday's Millennium meeting with the 'Boks.

The primary reason for that, of course, is the return to fitness and form of Priestland.

It does need to be remembered that Biggar probably wouldn't have got his chance in the Six Nations had the Scarlets playmaker not been injured.

Ever since he broke into the team just before the 2011 World Cup, Priestland has been Wales' first choice fly-half when available.

They have stuck by him even after he's had his off days, both during the 2012 Six Nations and last season's autumn internationals.

And now coach Warren Gatland has delivered a renewed show of faith by selecting him to call the shots against South Africa.

Gatland has always liked the way Priestland takes the ball up to the line, with that having brought the best out of the likes of Jamie Roberts in the past.

And there's generally been a feeling that he sticks to the game-plan and executes it well.

The rule of thumb has been that when Priestland plays well, Wales play well and he has been backed to have that catalytic effect this weekend.

Of course, much was always going to depend on how he came back from what for some players has been a career-wrecking injury.

A ruptured Achilles tendon is right up there in the list of serious sporting ailments and you are never quite sure how fully someone will recover from it.

In Priestland's case, there was particular concern, because he broke down after returning to action at the end of last season, ruling him out of Wales' tour of Japan.

But, happily, with a summer's rest and recuperation behind him, he has returned as good as new.

It was interesting yesterday to hear him say he actually feels as though his enforced lay-off may have proved a blessing in disguise.

It's enabled him to come back fitter and stronger than ever before and also given him the time away from the game to relax his mind.

It's well documented that he went through a tough time mentally during the last autumn campaign, having to seek the help of Wales' sports psychologist Andy McCann after losing confidence following a couple of indifferent displays.

He certainly seems more chilled out and relaxed now, with a smile back on his face, and that has translated into his performances on the field.

Arguably the outstanding regional result of the season so far has been the Scarlets' Heineken Cup win away to Harlequins and Priestland played a pivotal part in that 33-26 success.

He set the tone early on, as he was twice involved in the sweeping attack that led to the opening try from his half-back partner Rhodri Williams.

And he pulled the strings expertly throughout, looking back to his very best as he conquered the Stoop.

That performance must have played a big part in his recall, while the fact that fellow Scarlets Scott Williams and Jonathan Davies are occupying the Wales centre berths can't have hurt his chances.

Williams was always the clear favourite to replace the crocked Jamie Roberts at 12 following his own Heineken heroics, while Lions star Davies is now one of the first names on the team-sheet.

So selecting Priestland at 10 would have made all the more sense to Gatland, as it delivers a Scarlets midfield triangle and having established units on duty helps, especially at the start of a campaign when you are trying to gel together and get up to speed quickly.

It would then have been a question of who to seat on the bench and the greater versatility of Hook has proved decisive there, with the Perpignan man able to cover fly-half, centre and full-back.

There had been speculation that he wouldn't even make the autumn squad and he may well have missed out had Alex Cuthbert not damaged his ankle, an injury that necessitated further back three cover.

But Gatland has made a point of praising the desire that Hook has shown to play for his country again of late and he gets his reward by being on duty against the 'Boks.

So, for the unfortunate Biggar, it's a case of biding time and waiting for his chance to come again.

One man whose chance does come this weekend is his Ospreys team-mate Eli Walker.

The uncapped 21-year-old has edged out Liam Williams in the contest to fill the vacancy created by the hairline ankle fracture suffered by Cuthbert. It's a big test for the youngster and he has big shoes to fill, with try-machine Cuthbert having become a key player for Wales.

At 6ft and 13st 1lb, Walker is a very different physical specimen to the 6ft 6ins, 16st 5lbs Cuthbert, as demonstrated by his membership of Skinny Club - the group of Welsh squad players doing additional weights work to try and beef themselves up.

But what he does have is lightning pace and that X-factor which can lift supporters out of their seats.

No doubt the 'Boks will look to test him in defence.

CAPTION(S):

Toby Faletau is tackled to the ground in training yesterday

Dan Biggar is put through his paces in training with his Wales team-mates yesterday
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Title Annotation:Sport
Publication:Western Mail (Cardiff, Wales)
Geographic Code:4EUUK
Date:Nov 6, 2013
Words:1159
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