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Wales Rising: A Six Nations Cinderella Story

By Charlie Willett
Jess Breach takes on Jasmine Joyce during the Wales Women and England Women match in the Women's Six Nations at Cardiff Arms Park. Getty Images

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Wales’ win over Ireland in round one marked their first Six Nations victory since 2019. With two wooden spoons in two years, Welsh fans had little to cheer about. This year has been a different story – Wales have taken home two bonus point wins in the opening rounds of the TikTok Six Nations, and look like a much sharper outfit. The majority of the Welsh squad are now professional or semi-professional which has undoubtedly played a major part in the team’s turnaround.

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January 2022 saw the unveiling of 12 full time contracts for Welsh players, the first female athletes to be professionally contracted by the Welsh Rugby Union. Head Coach Ioan Cunningham had tough selections to make on which players to bring on board full time, but given performances in the opening rounds of the TikTok Six Nations it’s fair to say he made the right calls. Among the chosen few is Alisha Butchers, who has been phenomenal in the back row, putting in a player of the match performance in Wales’ 27 – 19 win over Ireland. This will be a dream come true for the Bristol Bears player, who was forced to crowdfund £5,000 for ankle surgery last year after sustaining an injury in training. Carys Phillips and Ffion Lewis are also among the ranks of the core contracted players, and both were instrumental try scorers in Wales’s second round victory over Scotland.

Centre Hannah Jones says professional contracts have had a ‘huge impact so far’ both on and off the field. Jones notes that ‘we’re going into the gym fresh and so we’re able to carry and tackle harder’. Gwen Crabb, a recipient of one of the fifteen additional part time ‘retainer’ contracts, says that she has ‘gained weight, and a lot of strength and power in the gym which is transferring onto the field’. Consistency is key when looking to make strength gains, and the freedom to commit to multiple training sessions in the week will have helped immensely. Physicality has played a significant part in Wales’ game so far, with prop forward Donna Rose powering over the line twice against Ireland, and such successes will only increase as players feel the benefit of increased time in the gym.

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The squad’s skillset has also flourished, with Crabb commenting that there is now more time to ‘focus on skill development and minute details, which has allowed me to have more confidence’. Jones agrees, saying that professionalism has allowed more time to be spent on ‘simple things like catch-pass, which we’ve rushed before…our fitness has gotten a lot better, and we’re able to finish the game in the last twenty minutes now’. The ability to close out a game has been striking in this years’ performances with Wales have scored in the final five minutes to take the lead in both rounds so far.

There is also the mental side of professionalism. As well as an increased opportunity to recover from training and games, Jones says that mental preparation has been key – ‘we have a performance planner where we write down what we want from the week and transform this into the game. I’ve had the time to put in to prepare.’ Crabb agrees, saying that she’s previously arrived to training ‘flustered’, but is now able to concentrate on mindset and ‘make the most of every training’.

Despite success so far, a challenge lies ahead for the Welsh in the form of their round three fixture against England at Kingsholm this Saturday 9th April. In recent years England have dominated not only the Six Nations but the World Rugby rankings, securing top spot and neatly dispatching second place rivals New Zealand in the Autumn series. When asked how the Welsh squad are feeling ahead of taking on the reigning champions, Crabb admits that playing the Red Roses is ‘another level up….England are the best team in the world with lots of strength and depth…but we are looking forward to the challenge and showing that we can compete against the best’.

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There is a real sense of belief emanating from Jones and Crabb that the Welsh squad can pose a threat to the Red Roses. Many Welsh players cross the bridge to play in the Allianz Premier 15s competition with and against their English rivals, and Crabb says that ‘playing alongside the English girls fills us with confidence – we are competing and shining in [the league]….in previous years we’ve seen them as better players than us, now we see that we’re the same level’.

There is no doubt that this weekend’s clash at Kingsholm will be one to watch, and it will be interesting to see whether Wales can provide a true test to the Red Roses on the back of fledgling professionalism.

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