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How Wales are shaping up as they face crisis in back-row.

Byline: SIMON THOMAS Rugby Correspondent simon.thomas@walesonline.co.uk

WE are just a couple of weeks into the new season, but already players are putting their hands up for Wales' autumn campaign, while others have been struck down by injuries which will rule them out of contention, the latest casualty being Sam Warburton.

With some established figures not yet back on the park following their Lions exertions, it's been an opportunity for their rivals to steal a march and stake a claim.

SIMON THOMAS casts an eye over both the early season pacesetters and the crocked contingent, as he assesses the likeliest combinations for the opening November international against Australia.

BACK THREE Following months of toing and froing, Leigh Halfpenny finally settled on the Scarlets as his new home. He's only had the one outing for them so far, but it's already looking a good fit and a positive in terms of his Wales prospects.

Alongside him, Steff Evans has carried on with the predatory form he took into Wales' summer tour on the back of being the top try scorer in the PRO12.

As for Halfpenny's Lions teammates George North and Liam Williams, they had their first outings of the season on the weekend, with North starting on the wing for Northampton in their victory over Leicester and Williams coming on there for his new club Saracens at Bath.

Both showed up well. It was good to see North back powering into contact, while Williams entered the fray with half an hour to go to help spark a revival which threatened to earn Sarries the spoils, before Semesa Rokoduguni took centre stage.

There are actually quite a few back three options out there now, with Dragons Hallam Amos and Ashton Hewitt having returned from long-term injury, Keelan Giles continuing his development with the Ospreys and Alex Cuthbert carrying strongly for the Blues. But you can see it being the three Lions given first shot against the Wallabies. Likeliest option: Liam Williams, George North, Leigh Halfpenny CENTRES He hasn't taken the field yet this season, but Jonathan Davies already looks a shoo-in for the autumn after his heroics with the Lions.

The Scarlets centre barely put a foot wrong out in New Zealand, consistently making the right decisions in both attack and defence.

His long-time international midfield partner, Jamie Roberts, lost his place in the side to Scott Williams last season and one wondered whether that might be the beginning of the end for the big man.

But his spirits were to be raised when he was handed the captaincy for Wales' South Seas tour, a role he took huge pride in and one which seemed to give him a new lease of life. There are youthful options in Morgan and Owen Williams, while it will be good to see Owen Watkin back for the Ospreys after missing the whole of last season, with the versatile Cory Allen a more experience squad contender.

But, once again, it looks like being a battle between Roberts and Williams to partner Davies, with the Scarlets combination possibly decisive in getting Scott the shout. Likeliest option: Scott Williams, Jonathan Davies HALF-BACKS Things have suddenly got a whole lot more interesting at No.10!

After his excellence on the Lions tour, Dan Biggar looked firmly in pole position for the Wales berth. But now a new dimension has been added to the debate with the announcement that he will be leaving the Ospreys to join Northampton next summer.

The question is how often will he have No.10 on his back and in how many big games? Sam Davies is now the fly-half future at the region and might the Ospreys want to install him as first-choice as a show of faith, rather than shunting him out to full-back? Clearly, if Biggar is to start fewer of the big games, it's not going to be ideal in terms of his Wales prospects or preparation.

It means Davies would have the chance to stake a claim in his absence, while others have laid down an early season marker in the battle for the famous red No.10 jersey.

Rhys Priestland hasn't worn that shirt since the opening game of the 2015 World Cup against Uruguay and was something of a fringe figure in his first two years at Bath.

But with George Ford moving on to Leicester, he has been handed his chance at the start of this season and has grabbed it with both hands, producing outstanding performances in the victories over the Tigers and Saracens.

Priestland's successor as Scarlets fly-half, Rhys Patchell, has to be another serious contender having started the new term so well. His coach Wayne Pivac has likened him to Beauden Barrett and praise doesn't come much higher than that.

So plenty of options, with Gareth Anscombe hopefully coming back into the equation in a month or so following his long-standing groin issues. But, for now, for all the caveats, you would still view Biggar as the man in possession, while his Ospreys half-back partner Rhys Webb remains the firm favourite to stay ahead of Gareth Davies in the No.9 duel.

Likeliest option: Rhys Webb, Dan Biggar FRONT ROW With Gethin Jenkins (knee surgery) and Rob Evans (broken finger) both missing Wales' summer tour, it was Nicky Smith who took on the loosehead duties against Tonga and Samoa, doing a decent job.

Jenkins is yet to return to action and will be 37 in November, so we wait to see just how much our most-capped player has to add to his stalwart service to his country. But Evans is back and firing for the Scarlets and looks to be the man most likely.

At hooker, the ball-carrying Ryan Elias has started the season strongly and could be understudy to Ken Owens for both region and country, with Scott Baldwin an experienced alternative on hand.

Tomas Francis started for Exeter at the weekend in their victory over London Irish. With Samson Lee having hit the ground running, another close tighthead battle lies ahead, with the all-Scarlets option maybe just nudging Lee ahead.

Likeliest option: Rob Evans, Ken Owens, Samson Lee SECOND ROWS We haven't seen Alun Wyn Jones so far this term, but we know what he will bring when we do.

He answered all the doubters with his combative, hugely-committed performances in the last two games against the All Blacks and came home with an incredible record, having figured in nine successive Tests on three Lions tours. What a legend.

So once again, it is likely to be AWJ plus one for Wales in the second row.

There are plenty of contenders, with fellow Osprey Bradley Davies over his knee issue, Luke Charteris in towering early season form for Bath, Jake Ball such a physical presence with the Scarlets and Cory Hill taking on increasing responsibility as Dragons skipper.

This is going to be interesting, with Charteris maybe just having his nose in front, looking to have benefited from his summer off, given his display against Saracens at the weekend.

Likeliest option: Luke Charteris, Alun Wyn Jones BACK ROW Having been such a plentiful position for Wales of late, the openside berth has become somewhat cursed in recent weeks.

Ellis Jenkins is unlikely to play again this year after ripping his hamstring off the bone, James Davies will be out for 12 weeks due to shoulder surgery, Thomas Young is sidelined with a torn calf and Nic Cudd will miss pretty much the entire campaign due to knee ligament damage.

And now it's emerged that Sam Warburton has joined the casualty list.

So, Wales have a vacancy on the blindside.

Dan Lydiate could come back into the equation as he makes his return this weekend from a lengthy lay-off, while Aaron Shingler went well there in the summer Tests after an outstanding season and Ollie Cracknell has started the new campaign in fine fettle.

It's a tough one to call at No.6, but the 60-cap Lydiate has been a tried and tested part of the set-up over the years and if he can get back to his old destructive self, then he may well be the frontrunner.

As for No 8, well just two words, Taulupe Faletau. He made Zinzan Brooke eat his words on the Lions tour and has just kicked straight on again for Bath.

Likeliest option: Dan Lydiate, Justin Tipuric, Taulupe Faletau

CAPTION(S):

Will Dan Biggar and Rhys Webb be back in harness at half-back? Will it be Luke Charteris and Alun Wyn Jones, inset, in the second row?

Taulupe Faletau has continued his fine form

Will Dan Lydiate be wearing the No.6?

Leigh Halfpenny has started the season well
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Title Annotation:Sport
Publication:South Wales Echo (Cardiff, Wales)
Geographic Code:4EUUK
Date:Sep 13, 2017
Words:1457
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