Wales men are at the beginning of what will surely be a busy period of international rugby – one that didn’t get off to the best of starts after a 38-21 loss to France in a warm-up match away in Paris last weekend. Next up is Scotland on 31 October in their final match of this year’s Six Nations tournament.
Wales have not followed last year’s Grand Slam win with similar triumph. So far in this year’s Six Nations tournament they have lost against England, France and Ireland. Their only victory comes against Italy, in a 42-0 win in round one.
Wales Women have just one match to look forward to in international rugby’s return – a clash against Scotland on 1 November, in their final round of the Women’s Six Nations. Captain Siwan Lillicrap told WRU TV that there’s “unfinished business” from this year’s tournament, and interim head coach Darren Edwards is keen to see Wales win this match at Cardiff City stadium.
The news from Wales’ men’s camp: Who’s in and who’s out?
Wales men are heading into this run of fixtures with a mix of experience and youth in the squad; seasoned players like Alun Wyn Jones will line up with young uncapped players like Callum Sheedy.
The big story within the squad is captain Jones matching Richie McCaw’s record of 148 international test caps during the defeat to France. He will not have to wait long to break the record either: on Halloween, Jones is set to become the most capped international rugby player in history.
While veteran hooker Ken Owens was originally called into the squad, he has since been released due to dislocating his shoulder, alongside Scarlets back-row Josh Macleod who has a hamstring injury. In replacement, Dragons hooker Elliot Dee and Scarlets flanker James Davies join the Wales training squad.
Owens isn’t the only experienced player that Wales will miss. Liam Williams has also been released back to his club, Scarlets, alongside Dragons player Jonah Holmes. Williams has had a lack of game time this year due to a foot problem and has played just one test match, against England, since Rugby World Cup 2019. Both players have rejoined the squad this week and could make an appearance later on in the schedule.
Wales have also announced that Ross Moriarty picked up an ankle injury in training. This is a worry for Wales as the flanker had been due to start against France. Uncapped Cardiff Blues player Shane Lewis-Hughes joined the squad for cover, with Aaron Wainwright having taken the number six shirt against Les Bleus.
Despite not being in the squad that travelled to France, back-row Josh Navidi has not been released from the Wales camp following a concussion sustained during training at Cardiff Blues in September.
On the other side of the spectrum, there were seven uncapped players named in Wayne Pivac’s 38-man squad, including Macloed, Sheedy and Louis Rees-Zammit. Sheedy, who is just 24 years old, has just won the Challenge Cup with Bristol Bears.
Winger Rees-Zammit is a fan favourite at Gloucester. The 19-year-old, who has represented Wales Under-18s and was in the Six Nations squad earlier this year, finally received his test debut from the bench in Paris, as did Ospreys hooker Sam Parry.
Things to watch out for
There are plenty of storylines evolving in Wales’ upcoming campaign.
As they cannot win the Six Nations, the side will be looking for success in the Autumn Nations Cup. The team faces Ireland and England in the group stages of the tournament, both teams that beat Wales earlier this year. Ireland had a 24-14 triumph over Wales in this year’s Six Nations, with England winning by three points in a close 33-30 win in March.
Fans will be particularly excited by the Wales v England match in Group A of the Autumn Nations Cup, which is always an emotive fixture for players and fans alike. But how will Wales play without the roar of home support from the Welsh crowd?
Wayne Pivac told World Rugby: “Certainly it’s something we have looked at. The Welsh crowd is immense, and the players love the singing and the support they get.
“A couple of weeks back we went to Tottenham Hotspur to do some research, I spoke to Ben Davies, one of the Welsh football players, about how the players cope without the noise and he said that once the players are out there, in that zone, as a player it didn’t affect them that much. But it certainly takes some getting used to after the first week. Players do adjust but it will certainly be a different atmosphere.”
While Wales will be without a home crowd, they won’t be short of action with new recruits keen to make their mark. Young Sheedy, for one, could prove to be Wales’ secret weapon. The fly-half has been explosive for Bristol, with an excellent pass and the ability to set up devastating attacks.
Sheedy could be particularly important if the team faces Fiji in the Autumn Nations Cup finals weekend. The fly-half plays his club rugby alongside Fiji centre Semi Radradra, and has played a key part in Radradra’s success with Bristol, supplying perfectly weighted passes to allow the Fijian to break through the opponent’s defence.
The Bristol fly-half will surely be revealing all to his Wales team-mates if they are to line-up against the island nation.
“’Professional’ isn’t all about being paid money”
Wales Women had a troublesome start to the year, losing all four matches of their Women’s Six Nations tournament so far, against Italy, Ireland, France and England.
In September 2020, Darren Edwards, former Wales under-20s and sevens coach, was named as Wales Women’s interim head coach for their match against Scotland.
The 46-year-old is changing how the players view rugby, with player wellbeing at the heart of the new structure. Wales Women are not a professional side, so most players have full-time work or studies outside of playing rugby for their clubs and Wales.
Edwards told World Rugby that he was surprised by the professionalism of Wales Women: “The big thing that really struck me, that I had forgotten about after 25 years in the men’s professional game as a player-coach, is how professional these women are. They’re working all day, then playing in England, so the travel distance is huge, then coming into camp and training twice a week here.
“’Professional’ isn’t all about being paid money, it’s about how your lifestyle looks and how you look at the game. I’ve really been blown away by how committed they are.”
Edwards understands and cares about the demands faced by the women. His focus is on creating an environment for the players where they can perform their best. “My experience from working in the men’s game showed me that it’s the environment that you create that gets the team to perform. The experienced women have been really good to me, giving me feedback and driving the environment that I want to create.
“I am here as an interim head coach and I want to leave this group of players in a good place for whoever takes over.”
Wales women are growing in strength thanks to some key players moving to clubs in the English Allianz Premier 15s tournament, including captain Siwan Lillicrap, who joined Bristol Bears in the summer of 2019. Lillicrap is joined by Wales teammates Manon Johnes, Kayleigh Powell, Lauren Smyth, Caryl Thomas, Natalia John, Courtney Keight, Jasmine Joyce, Elinor Snowsill, Keira Bevan and Alisha Butchers.
Others have joined teams such as Gloucester-Hartpury, including Cara Hope, Gwen Crabb, Kerin Lake and Cerys Hale.
There is just one uncapped player in the squad, Laura Bleehan, a medical student at Cambridge University.