Injuries are very much part and parcel of rugby and Wales have had their fair share of late.
Wayne Pivac was missing a number of front-line players during the autumn campaign and fitness concerns persist ahead of the Six Nations.
But if, by some miracle, everyone were to be available at some point in 2021, what would Wales’ strongest XV look like?
Try this dream team out for size.
15. Liam Williams
It’s been a very stop-start 2020 for “Sanjay” amid the Covid-19 shutdown and assorted fitness issues.
He re-joined the Scarlets from Saracens in February, but has been restricted to just one appearance for them.
There have been five outings for Wales, but now he is side-lined again by the ankle injury he picked up against Italy in Wales’ last Autumn Nations Cup match.
However, the hope is he will be back in time for the start of the Six Nations and that 2021 will prove kinder to him.
The question then is who starts at 15, with Leigh Halfpenny having been playing some of the best rugby of his life.
It’s a really tight call, but you just find yourself edging towards Williams if fully fit, given his strike running and countering from deep, with Wales needing to offer more in attack.
14. Josh Adams
It would have seemed unthinkable a year ago, but there is a little bit of a question mark over the World Cup top try scorer’s place in the team, given the barren run he is going through and the quality alternative options provided by a rejuvenated George North and the versatile Liam Williams.
Adams has now gone seven Test matches without scoring a try, which is a real drought by his standards, given he crossed 13 times in his previous 15 outings.
Against England in November, he only touched the ball four times and made just two metres, so there is an involvement issue.
But much of that is down to the fact Wales have had so little decent ball of late.
Adams remains one of the most potent finishers in the game given half a chance. The challenge is to present him with more of those chances.
13. Jonathan Davies
This is another tricky one because Davies hasn’t been at his world class best since returning from almost a year out following knee ligament surgery.
Moreover, he will turn 33 in April.
So, can he scale the heights once more and put himself back in the reckoning for a third Lions tour?
Or is it time for Wales to move on at outside centre and make that George North’s new home, with specialist midfield men Nick Tompkins and Owen Watkin other options?
Well, on balance, when fully fit and firing, Davies still remains the man for the job at 13, given his decision-making, his lines of running and his defensive organisation.
12. Johnny Williams
The fact Williams demands a place in Wales’ strongest team just two caps into his Test career speaks volumes for the impact he made during the autumn.
He was the find of the campaign, providing the answer to the question of how to replace Mr Reliable Hadleigh Parkes at No. 12.
He made an impressive debut against Georgia, taking it up hard and direct in the wet conditions, and was better still versus England, showing opportunism for his try and doing outstanding work in defence with some bone-shaking hits. There’s more to his game than just crash bang too, as he’s a good footballer.
The 24-year-old is currently side-lined with a calf problem, but will have a big role to play in 2021.
11. Louis Rees-Zammit
There’s huge competition on the wing, with the likes of George North, Liam Williams, Johnny McNicholl, Owen Lane, Steff Evans, Hallam Amos, Ashton Hewitt and Jonah Holmes all in the mix.
So, including a 19-year-old with just three caps to his name in Wales’ best possible team might seem a bold move in theory.
But such is the enormous teenage talent Rees-Zammit possesses you probably won’t find too many people disagreeing. The kid just has something special about him.
We all know about his pace, elusive running and try-scoring prowess from what he has done with Gloucester, but you saw another side to his game against England, as his defence was put to the test and he emerged with real credit.
He’s living proof of the old adage that if you are good enough you are old enough.
10. Gareth Anscombe
Now this is where you enter real dream team territory.
Anscombe hasn’t played a game of rugby since suffering serious knee ligament damage against England in August 2019 and is unlikely to feature this season as he rehabs from a third operation.
But if he can get back playing in 2021 and recapture the form he showed during the 2019 Grand Slam, he remains the most rounded 10 available, bringing a creative cutting edge along with tactical control.
If he’s not in the equation, then Wales remain well blessed at fly-half with Wayne Pivac’s primary pick Dan Biggar still doing the business, as he showed with his man of the match display at the weekend, while you would hope Rhys Patchell can be back fit soon to provide a further option, along with Callum Sheedy and Jarrod Evans.
9. Tomos Williams
It’s been a real revolving door at scrum-half so far during Pivac’s Test tenure.
There have been three starts for both Tomos Williams and Gareth Davies, two for Kieran Hardy and one apiece for Rhys Webb and Lloyd Williams.
So it’s anyone’s guess who the Kiwi coach will go for come the Six Nations, with all of the candidates having valuable strings to their bow.
But perhaps the one who just has that added X-factor is Tomos Williams, who missed out during the autumn following a shoulder injury.
The handling skills and footwork which come from his basketball days, plus his pace and service, earn him the edge in this side.
1. Rob Evans
This is a wide open position.
You’ve got the scrummaging solidity of Wyn Jones and Nicky Smith, both of whom are also good over the ball.
Then you’ve got the carrying impact of young Rhys Carre.
But in terms of being able to do the lot, Evans fits the bill.
He has shown he can hold his end up at scrum-time in Test rugby, while he relishes taking the ball up and putting in the tackles.
Then there’s his handling ability. There are few props who can deliver the kind of no-look, one-handed offload with which he sent Kieran Hardy away to the line during the Scarlets’ Champions Cup victory at Bath.
2. Ken Owens
Wales badly missed the 77-cap Owens during the autumn in terms of his experience, leadership and set-piece steadiness.
The lineout, in particular, was a major problem, with Ryan Elias, Elliot Dee and Sam Parry all having their toils there at times.
Wales lost a succession of balls on their own throw through the campaign, undermining their efforts at source.
They need to resolve that, so Owens’ anticipated return from shoulder surgery in January will be very welcome.
He will have turned 34 by then, but there is plenty of life in the old Sheriff yet.
3. Tomas Francis
Samson Lee looked to have moved back into pole position at tighthead following an excellent display in the scrum against Georgia.
But then, seven days later, he found himself hauled off just 42 minutes into the England game, having fallen foul of French referee Romain Poite.
So Francis returned against Italy and has probably just nosed in front once again, with Dillon Lewis, Leon Brown and WillGriff John also in the equation.
Francis had done a really solid, perhaps under-rated, job as first-choice prior to damaging his shoulder at the World Cup and remains a go-to man.
4. Jake Ball
There’s plenty of competition at lock, with Will Rowlands, Cory Hill, Seb Davies and Adam Beard all having their qualities, but Ball is the man who deserves a spot in the strongest Wales XV based on his contribution over the last year or so.
He provides a real raw-boned physical presence in the collisions, whether he is putting in the hard yards, making the tackles or smashing into rucks.
He’s the kind of bloke you just don’t want to play against because he is going to leave you battered and bruised.
Now just one cap away from his half century, he is a seasoned and valued international, so one just hopes the rumours about him moving to Australia don’t prove accurate any time soon.
5. Alun Wyn Jones
Such has been Jones’ remarkable durability over the last 15 years, it’s pretty unusual to see him unavailable for Wales.
But the knee ligament damage he suffered in the final autumn Test against Italy means he will miss the start of the Six Nations.
So, at 35, is his body sending him a message? Is the end in sight?
Well, there is no indication of Jones calling it a day any time soon, while his work-rate is still right up there, based on his last full game, against England.
This break may serve him well after a big autumn shift and, while he’s still donning boots and delivering, he continues to demand a place in the team.
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6. Josh Navidi
What Navidi brings is just what Wales have been missing of late.
They have struggled at the breakdown and he’s their most effective player when it comes to clearing out at rucks, with the wrestling ability which runs in the family, while he also offers an additional jackaling presence over the ball.
Then there’s the physicality he brings in the contact area, consistently punching above his weight as a carrier and tackler.
Sometimes, a player’s status and reputation increases in his absence and that tends to be the case with Navidi, who turns 30 this week.
The hope now is that 2021 will see him put his concussion issues behind him because he is such a key man.
7. Justin Tipuric
When we drew up a list of the top 50 players in the world earlier this month, Tipuric was the highest placed Welshman, coming in at number 10 on the overall list.
In fact, he was the only Wales player in the top 25, which shows just what a stand-out performer he is.
It’s also a reflection that he can turn his hand to pretty much everything, whether it be clearing out, jackaling, carrying, tackling, supporting or delivering a deft pass, showing off the handling skills and pace of an outside back.
The devastating double act he forged with Taulupe Faletau against Italy bodes well for 2021.
8. Taulupe Faletau
The resurgence of Faletau was one of the biggest pluses to come out of the autumn.
He had understandably taken a little while to get up to speed again after an injury-plagued couple of years.
But, by the end of the campaign, he was back to his imperious best.
He had a whale of a game against England and then produced a man of the match display versus Italy.
Having him and Tipuric combining in slightly narrower channels worked a treat, while it’s great to see the feet moving of old and the work-rate sky high once more.
With Navidi doing the donkey work to complement the ball players, you would have a real top quality breakaway unit.
Then, when you add the likes of Aaron Wainwright, Ross Moriarty, James Botham, Shane Lewis-Hughes, Ollie Griffiths, Josh Macleod and hopefully Ellis Jenkins and Aaron Shingler into the mix, Wales really will be in a good place in terms of their back row depth in the coming year.
-- to www.walesonline.co.uk