It certainly wasn’t the easiest U20 Six Nations campaign for Wales U20 over the course of June and July as, after having had such little rugby over the previous year, a young squad had to deal with a bubble and a game every six days.
A hard-fought win over Italy in round one was followed by three heavy defeats at the hands of Ireland, France and England, before the competition finished on a high note with a win over Scotland to secure a fourth place position in the table.
I’ve written previously about the need for Welsh rugby to properly get to grips with the development of players from the point they leave U18 regional age grade rugby to the point that they break into the first team at their club, with it being properly managed rather than waiting for an injury or financial crisis in order to get their chance.
That remains something for the Welsh Rugby Union and the four professional clubs to look at, but in the short-term the WRU can take a look at it’s coaching set up in order to maximise what, next season, could well be a very exciting and experienced Wales U20 squad that will hopefully compete in a proper U20 Six Nations as well as the return of the World Rugby U20 Championship.
Ioan Cunningham only took over the role of U20 head coach shortly prior to the tournament as Gareth Williams moved up to be part of the senior team’s back room staff, and his CV is an impressive one after helping guide Scarlets to Pro12 success and a Heineken Cup semi-final with a core of homegrown players in the squad.
What he needs is specialist assistance though, particularly defensively, as only Scotland conceded more points than the young Welshmen who shipped an average of 30 points per game. With only an average of 18 points scored per game the attack could also benefit from some specialist help.
This isn’t a blight on the likes of Paul James, T Rhys Thomas and Richard Fussell who have stepped up from their Academy coaching day jobs to work with the national U20 side, but a full-time head coach like Ioan Cunningham who can also coach the forwards, a full-time backs/attack coach and a full-time defence coach would take the whole setup to the next level professionally.
There would still be room for younger coaches from the professional clubs to step in with specialist skill coaching or as assistants, but the continuity of having the three core areas coached by full-time coaches, who work well together and feed into Wayne Pivac’s overall coaching ethos, and aren’t impacted by club ties, has to be a consideration now for the WRU.
The clamour for that comes from the fact that this year’s Wales U20 team were so young, with 15 of the 32 players selected eligible to play again next season, as opposed to many of their opponents who will be looking at less than 10 players returning in 2022.
Crucially for Wales nine of those 15 are forwards, with 8 in the tight five, hopefully giving next season’s squad that edge that Welsh teams at this level so often lack in terms of adding physicality to the defence and giving the backs a platform to play from.
With coronavirus restrictions beginning to lift there is a chance for those 15 players to make full use of the development pathway currently in place, getting senior rugby experience in the Indigo Group Premiership and hopefully some professional A games either inside Wales or against Irish opposition, as well as potentially playing BUCS Super Rugby for their universities, continuing their improvement before February.
If that happens, and the likes of Efan Daniel, Dafydd Jenkins, Christ Tshiunza, Alex Mann, Harri Williams, Ben Burnell, Joe Hawkins and Carrick McDonough are fit to return and form an experienced spine, then there’s a chance for Wales to put pressure on this year’s top three before going on to the World Rugby U20 Championship.
It’s a generation packed with talent despite the coronavirus pandemic threatening to curtail their development, let’s make sure they’re not lost.