Matthew Rees has backed Wales’s young tighthead trio to fill the boots of Ospreys cornerstone Adam Jones during the year-end internationals.
Out of Aaron Jarvis, Scott Andrews and Samson Lee, Rees is closest to fellow Scarlet Lee, who was called out to the national training camp in Spala, Poland this week to provide cover for Jones, who has been ruled out of the upcoming Tests with an ankle problem.
But he has also admired Osprey Jarvis as an opponent and was in the same matchday 22 as Andrews when the Blues player made his debut start for Wales against Australia in December 2011.
The hooker knows fellow 2009 British and Irish Lions front row Jones would be missed by any side in world rugby, but he sees no reason why his absence will not mean at least one of the next generation tightheads coming to the fore as Wales take on the might of Argentina, Samoa, New Zealand and Australia on consecutive weekends from November 10.
The former Wales captain, who missed out on the 2011 Rugby World Cup campaign through injury, knows only too well about the intensity of competition in the current squad, as he is currently engaged in his own contest for selection with Scarlets team mate Ken Owens and Ospreys hooker Richard Hibbard.
But he says that competition is only going to benefit Wales in the long run and, whilst he concentrates on his own personal challenge to retain that starting berth, he admits he will be keeping a watchful eye on the battle for the No. 3 jersey.
“We have props who can play both sides of the scrum, with Paul James and Gethin Jenkins both able to move over and it will be up to the coaches when it comes to selection, but I can certainly see one of these youngsters coming through and getting to the next level over the next three or four weeks,” said the 54-times capped Rees from the Olympic training village in Spala which will be home for the next week.
“Adam is a loss, but we have got three pretty good players there waiting in the wings at the moment and the challenge for them now is to kick on and impress the coaches and take their chance when it comes.
“We have a couple of good young players there with all the talent they need, the only thing they may lack is experience at international level, but there is no better place for them to get that than in this November series when you look at the fixture list.
”There’s nothing easy about it and for a front row player to be potentially starting against the Pumas and kicking on from there, someone will have a chance to put a claim in for that jersey.”
Rees was part of the all-Wales front row fielded by the Lions in 2009 and led his country in the 2011 Six Nations campaign before a neck injury saw him withdraw from the 2011 Rugby World Cup squad, handing over the captain’s armband to Blues flank Sam Warburton in the process.
He returned to play a significant part in the 2012 Six Nations Grand Slam campaign, featuring against Italy and starting in the Championship climax, the 16-9 win over France at Millennium Stadium, and is the incumbent hooker after starting both of the final two Tests against Australia in June.
“It’s great to have competition for places, I’ve got Ken [Owens] at the Scarlets and we both push each other hard and with Richard [Hibbard] playing well for the Ospreys we are all fighting for that jersey and now these young props will have their own battle on their hands,” said Rees.
“I know Samson well, he’s been there all season for the Scarlets, he has come through the academy structure and he will want to go well in Poland this week to put pressure on the others. He is a great young prospect and definitely one for the future.
“Scott has been involved with Wales before and he knows what it’s all about, he’s been to the World Cup with the Under-20s as captain and he is one of the best tightheads around at the moment. He works incredibly hard and he will have a huge sense of pride to be involved with Wales.
“Aaron is here on performance, he’s shown he can do it for the Ospreys this season so, probably, the only thing he doesn’t have is that international experience and it looks like this might be where he gets it.
“All three of them could do a job, but, when it comes down to it, it will be about who takes the opportunity.
Rees said after the disappointment of three consecutive narrow defeats to the Wallabies, he feels that Wales are on the cusp of breaking through and claiming a coveted Southern Hemisphere scalp.
“We were all disappointed with how things went in Australia, but we have the opportunity now to climb that ladder again and get up the world rankings to where we feel we belong.
“We feel that we are close, within touching distance. If we continue to prepare well and make sure we are competitive against these top teams, keep the errors down and maybe be just be a bit smarter, we know the big wins will come.
“We aren’t far away, we know we can do it and it all starts against the Pumas in just over 10 days’ time.”