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FEATURE Which young thrusters could make Wales' Six Nations squad?

Which young thrusters could make Wales' Six Nations squad?
5 months ago

It was a tough year for new music, with established favourites such as Fleetwood Mac, Elton John and Abba helping to keep the emerging brigade off the list of 2023’s top 10 best-selling albums.

Wham! occupied the number one spot in the Christmas singles chart, with The Pogues and Kirsty MacColl among the chasing pack, along with Shakin’ Stevens.

Call that an old-school triumph. But it’s not across the board.

In Welsh rugby the next generation have been pushing through with more force than we’ve seen in years, with some helped by the opportunities that have come their way amid the exit of so many senior players from the cash-strapped scene on the western side of the River Severn. Others have been banging in standout displays in England.

Warren Gatland
Warren Gatland has had his eye on a host of new faces as he finalises his Six Nations squad (Photo Ian Cook – CameraSport via Getty Images)

How many of the fresh faces can we expect to see in the Wales Six Nations squad that Warren Gatland is set to announce imminently? Hard to say, with the Kiwi famously his own man in selection. He will no doubt be mindful of the words of former Ospreys joint-managing director Mike Cuddy back in the day: “The trouble with Welsh rugby is that a bloke can arrive on the scene, run down the wing, score two tries and before he knows it, he’s in the Wales squad with everyone saying how great he is.”

‘Twas ever thus.

Welsh rugby has always enjoyed searching for the next big thing. Some would say it’s an obsession for the die-hards. Occasionally, those in luck can happen upon a gem, as was the case a quarter of a century or so ago when a slip of a lad came off the Amman United bench, breathed in the Sunday afternoon air and took his place in the centre during a Welsh Cup second-round match against Swansea.

There have been plenty of up-and-comers to be encouraged by this term, making it more than likely that a sprinkling of them will get chances to show they are ready to be part of Gatland’s short- and long-term plans

The All Whites were running in tries from all angles at the village ground, but within minutes of his arrival on the pitch, Shane Williams had flown through their defence as if propelled by a rocket launcher. By the time the Swansea cover had scrambled to haul the then 21-year-old down inside their 22, opposition players were looking at each other as if to say: ‘What the hell was that?’ No great insight was needed to predict that here was a player who was destined to go places, and quickly.

The likes of Williams come along as frequently as visits from Halley’s Comet, of course.

But, still, there have been plenty of up-and-comers to be encouraged by this term, making it more than likely that a sprinkling of them will get chances to show they are ready to be part of Gatland’s short- and long-term plans, perhaps leading all the way to the World Cup in Australia in 2027.

Below are eight players who have particularly caught the eye. All are aged 22 or under.

CAMERON WINNETT (age: 20)

There’s a case for suggesting this guy has been the most consistently strong full-back in Wales this season. Nothing seems to faze him.

We may not be talking Steve McQueen in Bullitt or Paul Newman or Robert Redford in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, but Winnett appears to have the ability to maintain a sense of cool no matter what’s thrown at him. Thanks to impressive timing, nerve and technique, he is adept at collecting high balls and he has a strong kicking game, an integral part of the job description for a No. 15.

His decision-making has also improved at Cardiff, where he has benefited from a quality coaching set-up in the development ranks, headed by Gruff Rees.

He also has a go in defence, another non-negotiable part of a full-back’s role.

Wales have more experienced players who can cover 15 as well as wing, among them Louis Rees-Zammit and Josh Adams, but there is a case for believing those two are more effective out wide.

If Wales are keen to develop a specialist custodian for the coming years, then, they could do worse than take a close look at Winnett.

Chances of making Wales’ Six Nations squad: 7/10.

IMMANUEL FEYI-WABOSO (age: 21)

The wing is eligible for both Wales and England, with everything suggesting whichever country he opts to play for will have a serious talent on their hands.

That much was obvious even before his man-of-the-match effort for Exeter Chiefs against Bristol Bears over the festive period, but the game at Ashton Gate shone a light on the 6ft 1in, 14st 1lb back’s potential.

Immanuel Feyi-Waboso
Feyi-Waboso scored one try and had a hand in two others in Exeter’s win at Bristol (Photo Bob Bradford – CameraSport via Getty Images)

Feyi-Waboso displayed quality on both sides of the ball, powering his way through tackles and halting opponents with uncompromising hits of his own. He also came up with a high-class finish in the corner and even a turnover.

“When it comes all together he is just going to grow and become a very, very good player,” said Exeter director of rugby Rob Baxter.

“He has got great pace, strength and balance. He half-missed a tackle in training and started to do a back-roll, and as he rolled over he did a handspring off the floor and landed on his feet.

“You look at it and go: ‘How have you just done that?’ But he doesn’t even know how he has done it. He is just a very gifted athlete in a lot of ways.”

At the time of writing, IFW had made no announcement on his international future.

There are still areas of his game that need shining up, but he is a player with limitless promise. If Wales haven’t already been in touch, they would be advised to do so quickly.

Chances of making Wales squad: 8/10.

MASON GRADY (age: 20)

A work in progress who needs to hone his skills? Absolutely.

But at 6ft 5in and 16st 6lb, with the ability to cover ground quickly, Grady also has rare athletic prowess that makes him hard to stop on a rugby field.

Warren Gatland once said he looks for skill, speed and size in players, and anyone who has two of those qualities has a chance of making it in Test rugby.

Grady ticks the speed and size boxes. Stats for the United Rugby Championship as the new year dawned showed him to have made more clean breaks than any other player – including the likes of Duhan van der Merwe, Jacob Stockdale and Rhyno Smith. When the Welshman moves up the gears, alarm bells tend to sound in opposition defences.

Like many on this list, he isn’t the finished article, but if he develops his passing ability, awareness and decision-making, he could be a huge asset.

Chances of making Wales squad: 8/10.

IOAN LLOYD (age: 22)

So versatile he could probably drive the team bus and oversee a repair job if the head gasket blew.

Playing at full-back, Lloyd was the Scarlets’ best player in their defeat by the Dragons on New Year’s Day, beating seven players and making 90 metres from his 11 runs.

Ioan Lloyd
Lloyd’s imagination and unpredictability could offer Wales a different dimension (Photo Ryan Hiscott/Getty Images)

But it’s at fly-half where he has really come to the fore this term. Operating behind a pack that has largely been on the back foot, Lloyd has shown ability and character, often playing his way out of testing situations with searing running.

With him, the safe bet is to expect the unexpected, the twist that even the boldest scriptwriter wouldn’t dare to write. It can sometimes seem as if he’s thrown multiple options up in the air and seized upon the most risky, which explains why even those with scarlet eyeballs can occasionally feel as nervous as the west Walians’ opponents when Lloyd collects the ball near his own line.

But in dismal conditions at Rodney Parade on the first day of 2024, he zoomed past more opponents than the Dragons managed to beat as a squad.

Form suggests he should make Gatland’s group. Those who enjoy their rugby played with a dash of imagination will hope the Kiwi appreciates what the Cardiffian has to offer.

Chances of making Wales squad: 7/10.

DAFYDD JENKINS (age: 21)

Barely has Welsh rugby waved goodbye to the great Alun Wyn Jones when a new second-row model arrives on the scene.

We’ll call that timely. Exceptionally so.

Dafydd Jenkins
Jenkins has bolstered his burgeoning reputation by leading a rejuvenated young Exeter side (Photo Michael Steele/Getty Images)

Jenkins is already skippering Exeter Chiefs at the age of 21 and leads from the front every time he takes the field. He achieves important turnovers, is developing into a quality lineout forward and rarely misses a beat in defence.

He is keen to carry, too, albeit he needs to put in some work in this area if he is to come close to his dad Hywel Jenkins’ quality when taking the ball forward. Back in the day, there were not many Welsh forwards better at denting opposition defences than Jenkins senior, whether in the black of Neath or the white of Swansea.

At 6ft 7in and 19st, Jenkins the Younger already has eight senior caps on the board.

Many more will follow.

Chances of making Wales squad: 10/10.

JAMES FENDER (age: 22)

It seems fair to say that before the season started, few casual rugby observers outside of Swansea would have been able to pick out Fender in an identity parade, but the lock has been one of the success stories of the campaign, a young player who has stepped up as if to the manner born.

His man-of-the-match performance for the Ospreys against the Scarlets in Llanelli on Boxing Day showcased his worth. There were 14 carries, nine tackles and two turnovers in a display of serious maturity.

The Ospreys had been looking for a young lock to push through alongside Adam Beard after the retirement of Alun Wyn Jones and Bradley Davies.  They have Rhys Davies, of course, and he has proven priceless to Toby Booth’s team with his ability to double up on the blindside flank.

James Fender
Fender has proved a reliable lineout operator after stepping up for Ospreys this term (Photo Andrew Redington/Getty Images)

But Fender’s emergence has been a huge plus for Booth.  He has a big workrate and can be relied upon at lineouts.

Is he ready for Test rugby? Maybe the Six Nations will come a shade early for him.

But he is a young player on the up.

Chances of making Wales squad: 4/10

MACKENZIE MARTIN

During his spell in age-grade rugby there were some who doubted whether the No. 8 would blossom at senior level. Martin had picked up the odd injury which blighted his progress and appeared to have a lot of work in front of him if he was to develop into a gun-to-tape player.

But Cardiff have worked hard with him and the results have been there for all to see. In the Champions Cup clash on the road against Toulouse in early December, he in no way looked out of place, carrying the ball with force and dynamism.

At 6ft 5in and 18st 3lb, he is hard to stop when he builds up a head of steam and his size and power mean he stands a fair chance of making it onto the Test stage at some point, with Wales needing to add to their ball-carrying options.

The challenge for him will be to keep working and learning.

Martin isn’t the complete product – of course he isn’t at his age – but he has a high ceiling and Taulupe Faletau is helping his development at Cardiff.

Just maybe, he could emerge as an important player for Wales in the coming years.

Chances of making Wales squad: 7/10.

MORGAN MORSE

On a surface that resembled a chocolate blancmange, 18-year-old Morse scored one of the tries of the season for the Ospreys against Cardiff at the Brewery Field in Bridgend on New Year’s Day.

It was an improbable sight, the back-rower using his right boot to trap the ball 49 metres out before setting off on a slaloming run. Along the way, three opponents were left clutching thin air prior to Morse producing a lung-bursting surge that a further six or seven pink-and-black-shirted defenders couldn’t stop.

All watchers would surely have raised eyebrows, but perhaps those who have followed the youngster’s career to date would have been less surprised than most. For Morse is a player who has commanded attention throughout schoolboy rugby with special deeds never too far away.

Morgan Morse
Morse has progressed from the Wales U20s to make a big impression with his ball carrying (Photo World Rugby via Getty Images)

What is his best position? Some doubt whether he is big enough to play at No. 8, but he made a pretty good fist of the challenge against Cardiff. He can also operate at blindside and openside, so there are options for his coaches.

But what is certain is that he is a talent, albeit one that is still at the development stage.

Might he sneak a Wales Six Nations squad place as an apprentice, so to speak?  Maybe he’d be better off banking game time with the Ospreys.

His time will come, though. That much seems assured.

Chances of making Wales squad: 3/10

OTHER POSSIBLES

Ospreys’ Harri Deaves (aged 22) and Cardiff’s Alex Mann (21) have been piling up the tackles and turnovers, with Deaves putting in 25 hits against the Scarlets on Boxing Day. Both flankers are also good over the ball.

Eddie James (21) is an impactful centre at the Scarlets, while at the Dragons, Harri Ackerman (19) is going to appear on the radar at a higher level at some point, along with his Wales U20s midfield mate Louie Hennessey.

Nor should we forget that Louis Rees-Zammit and Sam Costelow are still only 22, the same age as Cardiff’s other emerging full-back, Jacob Beetham.

Distinct signs of hope for Wales moving forward, then.

It isn’t all gloom and doom.

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