Forward focus for Wales U20s as the backs wait to be unleashed

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The U20 Six Nations will once again be the curtain raiser to the senior Championship on Friday night as Wales U20 make the trip north to host Ireland U20 at Colwyn Bay’s Parc Eirias.

Byron Hayward has named a squad not short of experience with 13 returners from last season despite the number of players who graduated the setup in 2022, most notably Dafydd Jenkins, Christ Tshiunza, Joe Hawkins and Mason Grady who have all been named in Warren Gatland’s squad for the next two months.

The majority of those about to begin their second season in the U20 squad are in the backs, with 8 previously capped internationals at this age grade selected again, including some of the standout performers from 2022 across the U20 Six Nations and the Summer Series of games, held in place of the World Rugby U20 Championship.

Harri Williams improved throughout the year at scrum-half and has gone on to play regularly for Llanelli and Swansea University this season, while Dan Edwards also made steady progress at fly-half and has benefitted from regular rugby with Swansea in the Indigo Group Premiership.

Cameron Winnett was one of the key men throughout the campaign at full-back and has made two United Rugby Championship appearances for Cardiff alongside featuring week-in, week-out for the Rags, and Oli Andrew was a sharp finisher out wide and has continued that try scoring form for Newport in the Premiership this season.

It was the performance of Winnett and Andrew’s back three colleague Harri Houston that caught my eye last season though, scoring four tries in eight games as well as displaying an appetite for work beyond that of being “just a winger”.

At 5’9″ and probably not much over 80kg, Houston is not the biggest stature-wise but he belies that with intelligent running lines and a leg drive through contact, both of which bear more than a passing resemblance to Josh Adams as a winger who’s physical edge outweighs his actual size.

Coming on to the ball at speed and with a killer step particularly off his left foot, line breaks and getting over the gain line are no problem. Defensively he is strong too, popping up with a turnover or two and playing semi-regularly at full-back for Swansea in the Premiership this season bringing on his positioning and aerial skills.

The bread and butter though is his finishing where he demonstrated a nose for the try line that all top wingers need, scoring a range of tries across 2022 from smart finishes, as below, to getting on the end of kick passes and being on hand to dive in at the corner post.

For Houston and his aforementioned colleagues in the backs to flourish they need a platform from the forwards though, particularly against an Irish side in round one who always cause Wales problems up front at this level with their well drilled packs that are largely drawn from the successful public school system in the country.

Back row stocks are looking healthy, with Ryan Woodman back to lead the side as captain, alongside Caleb Salmon, Morgan Morse and Mackenzie Martin who all begin a second year at this level. They are joined by Luca Giannini who has made his Scarlets debut this season, Huw Davies who has appeared in the English Premiership Cup for Sale and Gwilym Evans who has been a regular for Cardiff RFC and Cardiff Uni.

Second row doesn’t have much national U20 experience but Jonny Green has seen Premiership Cup action for Harlequins, Owain Evans and Liam Edwards are regulars for RGC and Swansea, respectively, and Tom Caple has also seen regular game time for Cardiff Uni.

The front row though is an area of unknown for Byron Hayward’s men with just one returning player from last year’s squad.

There are some interesting looking players on paper in the prop corps; Dylan Kelleher-Griffiths has been playing regularly for Pontypool and Freddie Chapman has joined the Ospreys having previously been at Saracens and played for England U18s as loosehead options, meanwhile Ellis Fackrell is the returner who has been playing week-in, week-out for Swansea and Will Couch has signed for Scarlets after the demise of Worcester Warriors for whom he appeared in the English Premiership Cup on the tighthead.

On the whole though it’s an inexperienced group of front row forwards, and as we’ve seen many times with the U20s, a side getting beaten up front and without a scrum platform will always struggle to get over the line.

That will be the area to watch as Wales look to get the Six Nations off to a good start against Ireland on Friday night.

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