Wales U20 get their U20 Six Nations campaign underway on Friday night by welcoming Italy U20 to Parc Eirias in Colwyn Bay, kick-off 7.35pm.
Gareth Williams’ men are largely at the start of a new two-year cycle after a number of players graduated the age grade setup last season. The likes of Dewi Lake, Tommy Reffell, Taine Basham, Cai Evans, Tiaan Thomas-Wheeler and Ryan Conbeer have all gone on to experience first team action with their regions or club this season.
While a clearly talented group they struggled to consistently show it on the field, finishing fifth in 2018 and fourth last year, each time with a record of two wins and three losses. There was also a consistency in the World Rugby U20 Championship finishes, sixth last season and seventh in 2018.
This season’s group are a majority of first year players at this level, but they will need to get some momentum over the next few weeks ahead of a tough pool at this summer’s Championships where Wales have been drawn against New Zealand, Australia and Georgia.
Gaining that momentum starts with Friday’s game against Italy, a fixture in which we have only lost once in the last 10 years, and that we won with a comfortable 12-42 scoreline in Mantua last season thanks to a Taine Basham hat-trick and further tries from Ed Scragg, Dafydd Buckland and Ioan Davies.
The young Azzurri will take confidence from a 34-13 win in the U18 Six Nations Festival last season though, with two-try scorer on the day Stephen Varney starting at scrum-half this Friday night.
Son of former Neath flanker Adrian, he is currently on the books at Gloucester after studying at Hartpury College, and qualifies for Italy through his mother’s side of the family. His brother also represented Italy U20, former Cardiff Blues Academy winger Alex.
The rest of the Italy U20 matchday squad for this round one encounter is made up of players largely on the books at Italian Top12 sides, with Zebre and Benetton not running Academy programmes of their own.
Italy U20: Jacopo Trulla (Kawasaki Robot Calvisano), Cristian Lai (7 Fradis Rugby), Federico Mori (Kawasaki Robot Calvisano), Giulio Bertaccini (Valorugby Emilia), Michel Mba (Fiamme Oro Rugby), Paolo Garbisi (Argos Petrarca)(c), Stephen Varney (Gloucester Rugby); Lorenzo Cannone (Florentia Rugby), Manuel Zuliani (Rugby Paese), Angelo Maurizi (Polisportiva L’Aquila Rugby), Andrea Zambonin (Rangers Vicenza), Riccardo Favretto (Mogliano Rugby 1969), Filippo Alongi (Mogliano Rugby 1969), Gianmarco Lucchesi (Lions Amaranto), Matteo Drudi (Frascati Rugby Club 2015)
Replacements: Matteo Baldelli (Cavalieri Union), Lorenzo Michelini (Kawasaki Robot Calvisano), Ion Neculai (Cavalieri Union), Nathanel Panozzo (Argos Petrarca), Luca Andreani (Bassa Bresciana Leno), Manfredi Albanese (S.S. Lazio Rugby 1927), Mattia Ferrarin (Udine Rugby), Michele Brighetti (Accademia Nazionale Ivan Francescato)
While the majority of the wider Wales U20 squad for the tournament are first years players, Williams has opted to use seven of the eight second year players in his starting XV for Friday, with the other on the bench.
Tighthead Ben Warren, second row Jac Price and flankers Jac Morgan and Ioan Rhys Davies add an experienced edge to the pack, while 9, 10, 12 combination Dafydd Buckland, Sam Costelow and Aneurin Owen will bring control in the three-quarter line.
Elsewhere there is excitement about number eight Morgan Strong who has featured heavily for Bridgend this season, as well as Dan John at Millfield who starts on the wing but is equally at home at full-back.
Will Griffiths is the second year on the bench and will cover hooker, with a number of exiles joining him on the bench in the shape of Bath’s Archie Griffin and Worcester’s Luke Scully, and scrum-half Ellis Bevan who is now studying at and playing for Cardiff Met but was discovered via the WRU Exiles programme.
Wales team: Josh Thomas (Ospreys), Dan John (Millfield School), Osian Knott (Scarlets), Aneurin Owen (Dragons), Ewan Rosser (Dragons), Sam Costelow (Leicester Tigers), Dafydd Buckland (Dragons); Callum Williams (Scarlets), Dom Booth (Scarlets), Ben Warren (Cardiff Blues), Jac Price (Scarlets), Ben Carter (Dragons), Ioan Davies (Cardiff Blues), Jac Morgan (Scarlets)(c), Morgan Strong (Ospreys)
Replacements: Will Griffiths (Dragons), Theo Bevacqua (Cardiff Blues), Archie Griffin (Bath Rugby), James Fender (Ospreys), Travis Huntley (Ospreys), Ellis Bevan (Cardiff Met), Luke Scully (Worcester), Bradley Roderick (Ospreys)
With wet and windy weather forecast for Colwyn Bay on Friday evening a high scoring game should not be expected to get the U20 Six Nations underway, with both teams looking to minimise mistakes and unlikely to go through the phases in attack.
For Wales they will likely rely on the neat and tidy game of Buckland to exert pressure on Italy, with Sam Costelow known more as a running fly-half than a game manager, and it may well be Luke Scully who comes off the bench sooner rather than later.
Ahead of a stern test away at Ireland next week a win would be huge for Gareth Williams’ side to get them underway in the U20 Six Nations.