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FEATURE Alex Callender: 'I was numb. It didn’t feel real and I felt angry about it.'

Alex Callender: 'I was numb. It didn’t feel real and I felt angry about it.'
3 weeks ago

“I was a 65kg scrawny little flanker up against 90kg French forwards on my debut.”

Ever since Alex Callender’s meteoric rise to international rugby, which saw her selected for Wales within 12 months of her first rugby training session, it’s become increasingly difficult to pull her off the pitch, where the hard-hitting backrow is used to felling players twice her size. The message is writ-large, underestimate ‘Al Cal’ at your peril.

At just 23 years-of-age, she has already chalked up 37 caps and Callender played every minute of this year’s Six Nations, where her ability to lead from the front have seen her installed as vice-captain. She is already a key cog in this new professional era for Welsh rugby.

Always cheerful, enthusiasm seeps out of every pore, as she recounts her rugby journey. “I started playing when I was 17 after seeing a Llanelli Wanderers leaflet. Honestly from my very first contact session I thought this sport is definitely up my street,’’ she beams.

It may have been a ‘chance encounter’ with rugby, but many who have watched Callender play are convinced her ascendancy was inevitable given her prodigious workrate. Callender is a fierce competitor, equally effective as a dominant tackler as she is snaffling turnovers. Indeed, she has the kind of effervescent energy anyone would want at a wedding to ensure there was no chance of an afternoon lull. 

Alex Callender
Alex Callender hit astonishing numbers for Wales during the Six Nations, making herself a key player for Ioan Cunningham (Photo by Tim Clayton/Corbis via Getty Images)

Initially told she was too small to be a flanker, but her bravery and physicality was noted and she was soon selected at a Scarlets Under 18s trial. Within months, she’d played invitational sevens and was named in Rowland Phillips’ autumn squad a year later. Her debut came playing away vs France during the following Six Nations, but with that intoxicating high came the heart-wrenching news her mother Donna had been diagnosed with terminal cancer. 

“She had only just started treatment so she could fly – I was so fortunate she was well enough. That moment I’ll treasure for the rest of my life. She was such a big character. I knew where she was because she’d just be screaming. She was my number one supporter, with her crazy coloured hair.’’

Callender loves to talk about her mother. She speaks with an openness and fondness despite her sense of loss being so acute.

She passed away a year last January, weeks before the 2023 Six Nations. ‘I was numb. It didn’t feel real and I felt angry about it. If I’m honest it probably still hasn’t sunk in yet. But it has brought my brother, my father and I closer together.’

When I was in a rugby environment, as soon as I stepped in I had a mentality switch. Realising there’s so much more to life than dwelling on being on the bench or not being selected

Rugby, she admits, has provided the whole family with a focus.

When I was in a rugby environment, as soon as I stepped in I had a mentality switch. Realising there’s so much more to life than dwelling on being on the bench or not being selected.

Also there were so many times I asked myself, ‘what would she want me to do?’ That was easy. Go out and smash it.”

Perspective was required too upon learning during the inaugural WXV competition that Worcester women had abruptly pulled out of all competitions, where she was playing at the time.

Alex Callender
Alex Callender has built up a cult following with Wales fans since her debut (Photo Joe Allison/Getty Images)

‘That was hard. I didn’t know what I was going to do, where I was going to play. Worcester was a second home to me. Jo Yapp (Worcester’s director of rugby) created an environment everyone wanted to be part of. To get the best out of me you have to really build a relationship with me as a human being and I can’t speak highly enough of her. She understood we were so much more than rugby players. ’ 

Recruitment for the upcoming season was by that point completed across the PWR so Callender was named captain of Brython Thunder, one of two Welsh sides in the six team cross-border Celtic Challenge competition. With just five rounds plus three play offs, the flanker is not convinced the current format is the long-term answer for developing the next generation of Welsh players.

‘’I cried after my first training session, I’d come from a different standard. There’s a lot of young girls who aren’t used to being in an environment where you have to be professional.

There are more girls who are playing rugby in Wales now, so where do they play after age grade? The BUCS league is the main option. The domestic set-up is still not good enough. Celtic Challenge is only for half a year, so I would ask can we extend that to have Italy and French teams playing in there? Can we use the £3m from the Lions investment to improve the domestic game?’’

Those questions were even more pressing following Wales’ bottom placed finish in the Six Nations, their first wooden spoon since 2018.

Last year our forward pack was unknown, our strengths weren’t targeted. Our big names now – Sisila Tuipolotu, Gwenllian Pyrs, Kelsey Jones, no one really knew what they could do. This year teams knew exactly how we were going to attack – through our forwards. We were too easy to defend against

It was a stark contrast to 12 months ago when Wales celebrated their best Six Nations finish in 13 years beating Scotland by 12 points and both Ireland and Italy by 26. This time around Wales lost to Scotland by two, Ireland by 31 and beat Italy by two points. So what changed?

‘Last year our forward pack was unknown, our strengths weren’t targeted. Our big names now – Sisila Tuipolotu, Gwenllian Pyrs, Kelsey Jones, no one really knew what they could do. This year teams knew exactly how we were going to attack – through our forwards. We were too easy to defend against.

Ultimately we need to give Lleucu George time and patience to really learn to lead an attack in a Wales jersey. Having stepped into that role in the Six Nations for the first time, it’s hard. You rule the roost on the field in that shirt.”

George, who is one of a number of Welsh girls to win back to back PWR titles with Gloucester and a linchpin of the side’s attack has now filled the fly half boots of  Elinor Snowsill for Wales and will start there on Saturday in a crucial WXV2 play off match v Spain, which also doubles up as a World Cup qualifier.

‘They are two very different tens. Lleucu has an enormous boot, we need to play the game around her strengths.

I’m confident the Gloucester girls will bring their form back to Wales. They’ll step up and play like they play for Gloucester for Wales. It’s absolutely crucial we not only make the World Cup but secure a spot in the second tier competition. Winning breeds confidence.”

There is no doubt what we’ll see from the relentless Callender on Saturday. In the Six Nations, no player made more carries, tackles, or hit more defensive rucks than the Welsh flanker. But those are just numbers, to get a real sense of her presence on the pitch, go and find her highlight reel, pinned to the top of her Instagram profile. There she is running amok, throwing rock n’ roll gestures to the backdrop of Kelly Clarkson’s ‘Stronger.’

It could not be more perfect encapsulation of ‘Al Cal’, Wales’ true force of nature. 

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