Former Wales captain Sam Warburton says he is “a big fan” of Exeter Chiefs forward Christ Tshiunza, who is “ticking all the boxes” ahead of the Six Nations.
The 21-year-old will face stiff competition for a place in Wales’ matchday 23 but offers versatility in the second and back-row, according to Warburton.
“He does a bit of everything”
However, Tshiunza’s athleticism and overall skillset is what excites the former captain most ahead of the Six Nations and Rugby World Cup this year.
“He plays wide a lot at Exeter, which suits Wales’ system when they put a hooker or a back-rower in their 15-metre channel. He is very comfortable with ball in hand,” Warburton said about how he could be used in the Welsh pack.
“He is not shy to dip in at breakdown defence as well, and he is kind of ticking all the boxes at the minute. I am a big fan.
“He wears seven at Exeter, but to me, he looks like a blindside. He does a bit of everything, which is nice.”
The 21-year-old debuted against Fiji in 2021 and provides a considerable physical presence at 6ft 6in and 17st 7lbs.
Horses for courses
Warburton believes Tshiunza’s ability in the lineouts will be useful later in the year and allows Gatland to select his back-row to best combat particular oppositions.
“His lineout credentials are one big bonus, and weight is another,” he said.
“With Tshiunza at six, who is 115kg, it makes a world of difference to a scrum. I am sure, from a set-piece perspective, there is a massive advantage there.
“For example, if you are playing South Africa, I think you are going to pick a different back-row.
“I think you would go with Tshiunza at six against South Africa, who are going to come with a strong lineout and a strong set-piece game.
“So I think it’s horses for courses, and it gives you a little bit of flexibility over who you pick. I wouldn’t say Morgan and Tipuric is the only combination throughout the whole Six Nations or World Cup.
“I think there is definitely a time and a place where you might chop and change.”
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The former Lions skipper also spoke of the return of Dragons back-rower Aaron Wainwright, who is back in the Test set-up after almost a year’s absence.
“It could be the most athletic back row we’ve picked in a squad for a long time,” Warburton said.
“You look at Tshiunza, Wainwright, Morgan, (Tommy) Reffell, Tipuric and Faletau – proven athlete after proven athlete after proven athlete.
“I think Justin is someone who certainly plays, given his experience and his leadership credentials. I think Jac Morgan is in the front-running as well, and Taulupe Faletau is nailed on for number eight.
“That is what I see as the starting trio, but I think we will see Tshiunza play at six at some point, and I think Wainwright will get a run, whether he comes off the bench or plays in that six-eight hybrid role.
“I think ‘Gats’ will want him to get some more international rugby under his belt because he could be a big player for Wales, not just for now but beyond 2023 as well.
“We’ve got enough depth there now. As long as those guys are used and exposed to international rugby over the next few months, then the back-row will be in a good place moving forward.”
Gatland’s second tenure as Wales’ head coach kicks off on February 4 when Wales face off against Ireland.