For many outside observers, the sight of Gareth Anscombe putting Jonathan Davies through a gap to crown victory over Scotland on Saturday evening is proof that the Welsh Rugby Union’s Exiles programme is in rude health.
Auckland-born Anscombe delivered an assured performance at the Principality Stadium on Saturday night to stake his claim for the Wales No. 10 shirt on a full-time basis.
Next weekend it could be Jonah Holmes, born in Stockport, who benefits from his ability to find space at the gain line, while Tom Francis, who also hails from the north of England, will return to contention in the front row.
Six of Wales’ starting XV against Scotland were born outside of the country, and Exiles programmes are becoming increasingly important as World Rugby’s eligibility rules increase from three to five years in 2020.
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However, according to the WRU’s National Exiles Officer, Gareth Davies, unearthing potential Test players is not the focus of the union’s endeavours in that area.
Although it is a bonus to watch Anscombe and others run out for Wales, Davies says his mandate is to provide a pathway for all Welsh-qualified players aged between 12 and 20, regardless of ability.
“It’s not about elite players,” he told RugbyPass. “It’s not about identifying the next Sam Warburton, or identifying the next Dan Biggar.
“It’s about providing a pathway for every Welsh qualified player who’s based outside Wales.
“That pathway could end up (with them) playing for a club second XV in Wales, it could end up being a professionally regionally contracted player – but there’s a pathway for every single player.”
Indeed, when Francis was first called up by Wales coach Warren Gatland almost four years ago, the tighthead prop told Davies that he had not engaged with the Exiles as a youngster because he didn’t think he was good enough.
Francis needn’t have worried, the future international would have been welcomed in with open arms. “Whenever we have events they’re never trials,” Davies said. “No one is ever released from the Exiles programme.”
The WRU Exiles programme was founded in 1980, primarily for adults who had left the country, however in the last 15 years its focus has shifted to younger players, aged between 12 and 20.
At present there are around 1,500 players – from as far afield as Australia, Canada and the United States – registered with the programme which Davies oversees from his office at the union’s base in Hensol, near Cardiff.
For youngsters based in the UK, the Exiles run one-day camps twice a year in Nottingham, London and Somerset designed to give as many as possible access to expert coaching.
“What was important was they get the same quality of coaching, the same quality of engagement, the same experience that they would do if they were in Llanelli or Swansea or Newport or Cardiff,” Davies said.
Engagement is a key tenet for the Exiles, and Davies is keen for the players who pass through the programme to develop an allegiance with Welsh rugby that in turn may help to swell playing numbers in the country, at all levels.
Davies said: “They’re all Welsh qualified, they’re all looking to explore opportunities within the Welsh Rugby Union and our challenge is making sure we engage with every single one of them.”
Of course, there is also a pathway to age-grade and regional rugby with the best talent invited to camps in Wales. This weekend an Under-18 Exiles side has competed in the ‘Super Six’ tournament in Pontypridd against teams from the four regions and RGC.
Consisting of short-form games with adapted rules designed to hone tactical and technical skills required in the professional game, the tournament is part of a series of events that will help Wales U18 coach Chris Horsman pick his squad for this season.
Last year 19 Exiles were included in the U18 training squad, with eight going on to win caps.
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Davies helped many of those players find places in regional academies, while the Exiles also have good links with independent schools and universities in Wales.
It is also part of his remit to keep tabs on Welsh-qualified players who live outside of Wales, whether that be a Holmes or Francis who were born abroad, or someone like Josh Adams, who was involved in the regional system but moved away to seek opportunity.
“There are dozens and dozens in the Premiership and the Championship in England, for example, who are Welsh qualified,” Davies said.
“We are monitoring all these players for different reasons and if an opportunity arises and we can get them into a regional squad, or if the player is looking for a new challenge and wants to come into a Welsh region it would then be a matter for the region head coaches, region directors of rugby as to whether there’s a place for them.”
An example from further afield is Joe Jenkins, born on Australia’s Gold Coast but qualified for Wales via his grandmother. Davies was notified of his eligibility via a third party, and following a successful trial with the Ospreys he made the move north and has gone on to represent Wales at sevens.
Jenkins was also able to transfer his final year of studies at the University of Queensland to Swansea University thanks to the Exiles’ help.
“Joe was nominated to us about two or three years ago as somebody who was Welsh qualified and had the potential to do well in Wales. So, we spent a few months in dialogue with Joe and his director of rugby at his university in Australia,” Davies explained.
“We decided that Joe had the potential to do well in our system. So, Joe came over for a trial period and was a good fit for the Ospreys for various reasons, and he excelled there, did really, really well and (was) identified as somebody with sevens potential and came into our sevens circuit.
“Within a year he was on the World (Rugby Sevens) Series.”
Davies, though, is keen to stress that success stories such as Jenkins are dividends of a system that is designed to offer a pathway into Welsh rugby – at whatever level – for all.
He says the most important part of his role is engagement, and tempering expectation. “They feel Welsh and they’re looking to explore opportunities in Wales,” he said. “For some that won’t be playing to a high standard in Wales.”
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