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The club rookie Sam Warburton is backing for Six Nations selection

By Liam Heagney
Cardiff's Cam Winnett in action with Wales U20s (Photo by Lewis Storey/Getty Images)

Former Wales skipper Sam Warburton has tipped rookie Cardiff full-back Cameron Winnett for a call-up by Warren Gatland for the upcoming Guinness Six Nations.

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The Welsh begin their 2024 schedule with a February 3 trip to Scotland and with experienced duo Leigh Halfpenny and Liam Williams no longer available for selection, Warburton’s hunch is that the soon-to-be 21-year-old Winnett can make the Test squad.

It was last June when RugbyPass previously spoke with Warburton over Zoom, mentioning we were in Cape Town and about to head upstairs to interview Winnett who was in South Africa playing for Wales in the World Junior Championship.

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The 2013 and 2017 British and Irish Lions captain said at the time he didn’t know much about Winnett, only what he had been told second-hand. Six months later, though, Warburton is now fabulously enthused by the youngster having seen him star in recent months for Cardiff in the URC.

Winnett made a try-scoring first-team debut as a teenager at Harlequins two years ago when the Welsh region’s squad was decimated by pandemic restrictions following an ill-fated URC trip to South Africa.

He went on to work his way through the Cardiff academy system and having played an energetic part in helping his country to a sixth-place finish at the most recent U20s World Cup, he has now become a club regular playing the full 80 minutes in all six of his URC starts this term and making a further appearance from the bench.

With Warburton now back at Cardiff as part of the club’s board, he has been able to keep a very close watch on Winnett’s accelerated development and has been very impressed by what he has seen.

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“He has been amazing for us this season,” Warburton told RugbyPass on Wednesday ahead of Cardiff’s trip to Toulouse in the opening round of this season’s Champions Cup.

“With Leigh Halfpenny and Liam Williams now playing in New Zealand and Japan, I think he is going to be in the Six Nations squad, you know. A really exciting player, he has been awesome.”

In what way has Winnett specifically caught the eye of Warburton? “He is a lovely balanced runner, has time. You just get these players who have time, they just don’t panic. Good kicking game, good under the high ball. Great attacking runner. Great left foot step.

“As all young players, defence is probably going to be the last thing that a full-back prioritises, that one-on-one sort of tackling which someone like Leigh Halfpenny mastered halfway through his career.

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“Other than that, an extremely good player. Just a bit of defensive stuff to tidy up but ball in hand, kicking game and just backfield understanding, positional play, he has got it. He’s just such a natural rugby player. Very, very excited about him.”

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Poorfour 4 hours ago
The AI advantage: How the next two Rugby World Cups will be won

AI models are really just larger and less transparent variants of the statistical models that have been in use since Moneyball was invented. And a big difference between the Icahn centre’s results and AI today is that ChatGPT-like Large Language Models can explain (to some degree) how they reached their conclusions. In terms of what impact they will have, I suspect it will have two primary impacts: 1) It will place a premium on coaching creativity 2) It will lead to more selections that baffle fans and pundits. Analysts will be able to run the models both ways: they will see their own team’s and players’ weaknesses and strengths as well as the opposition’s. So they will have a good idea at what the other team will be targeting and the decisive difference may well be which coaches are smart enough to think of a gameplan that the other side didn’t identify and prepare for. For players, it places a premium on three key things: 1) Having a relatively complete game with no major weaknesses (or the dedication to work on eliminating them) 2) Having the tactical flexibility to play a different game every week 3) Having a point of difference that is so compelling that there isn’t a defence for it. (3) is relatively rare even among pro players. There have been only a handful of players over the years where you knew what they were going to do and the problem was stopping it - Lomu would be the classic example. And even when someone does have that, it’s hard to sustain. Billy Vunipola in his prime was very hard to stop, but fell away quite badly when the toll on his body began to accumulate. So coaches will look for (1) - a lack of exploitable weaknesses - and (2) - the ability to exploit others’ weaknesses - ahead of hoping for (3), at least for the majority of the pack. Which is likely to mean that, as with the original Moneyball, competent, unshowy players who do the stuff that wins matches will win out over outrageous talents who can’t adapt to cover their own weaknesses. Which will leave a lot of people on the sidelines sputtering over the non-inclusion of players whose highlights reels are spectacular, but whose lowlight reels have been uncovered by AI… at least until the point where every fan has access to a sporting analysis AI.

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