It’s been a tough few days for Wales U20 as Ioan Cunningham’s men fell to back-to-back heavy defeats at the hands of Ireland U20 and France U20, respectively.
The cumulative score of 31-76 is a comprehensive one, and when you factor in a cumulative half-time score of 7-43 it underlines a week in which the Irish and French sides dominated proceedings during the first 40 minutes of each game before the men in red managed to fight back once the result was already tied up.
Now that is to the credit of the players who have battled throughout and did enough to earn victory over Italy U20 in round one. There’s been no lack of effort or fight, and there’s been moments of genuine quality, but it’s just come up well short of their Irish and French counterparts.
There are obvious reasons for that, starting with the coaching staff that was put together shortly before the tournament and while no doubt packed with talented young coaches, does not contain a huge amount of experience or any obvious defence coach, which has become apparent during rounds two and three.
Then the players themselves, despite their aforementioned qualities, are on the whole a very young squad. Only six of the 32-man squad are returnees from the 2020 pre-coronavirus U20 Six Nations squad, with the rest making their first forays into this level.
Cunningham noted in the press that the Italy game was second row Dafydd Jenkins’ first 80-minute match, while the Ireland squad was largely a year older than their Welsh counterparts at 19 or 20 years old rather than being just turned 18.
What exacerbates that second point though is the overarching argument of this blog, and that is that the majority of the Wales squad have hardly played over the last 12 months, with the fact that Jenkins has only ever played 70-minute matches underlining the fact that this squad is not ready to be competing with the likes of the Irish and French U20 sides.
Of course the coronavirus pandemic has played a part with a lot of rugby suspended over the last 15 months, but the Irish have managed to get their players on the field a suitable amount with a series of inter-provincial A games, Munster A playing seven games since last September for example, while the French have run almost a full season of Espoirs, their U21 league.
Meanwhile in Wales there have been just two Cardiff Blues A fixtures; one against the Dragons in early December and the other against the Ospreys in February. There were some training hit-outs while in U20 camp during June, but aside from that it’s been training with academies where possible or training alone otherwise.
Take the pandemic away and it’s been a pretty much consistent story for U20 sides for the last five years since the Grand Slam win in 2016, with Wales looking under-prepared and under-powered for taking on significantly stronger French and Irish sides, and only being able to put together the odd big performance to secure a result that stands out.
Played 20, won 9 and lost 11 is the Welsh record since 2017, with five of the wins coming against Italy or Scotland as we consistently struggle against those countries with professional setups for players aged 18-20.
The Welsh Premiership is a solid stepping stone for 18-year-olds coming out of regional age grade and college level rugby and experiencing senior rugby for the first time, but if that semi-professional competition is the only stepping stone towards the United Rugby Championship, then why would the Welsh Rugby Union cut the funding of competing sides?
These players desperately require regular professional level rugby in the form of the Celtic Cup, joining the Gallagher Premiership A League or even just arranging consistent games between the Welsh sides with additional games against Celtic or English opposition complementing them.
Until the Welsh Rugby Union properly pays for a professional development pathway from the age of 18 years old, rather than the current structure which seems to rely on a hope that injury and international call-up will create a space in first teams for young players, then Wales U20 sides, and subsequently the Wales senior national team, will struggle to reach it’s full potential.
It’s yet another example of the WRU and wider Welsh rugby public settling for the current situation of being happy to win the Six Nations every few years and reaching semi-finals of the Rugby World Cup while being some way off the level of New Zealand, South Africa and England when it matters.
Until this endemic culture of “well the national team is doing ok” becomes “how can the national team do even better” then the status quo will continue and we’ll never reach our full potential as a rugby nation.