WITH new coaches in charge of Wales, Ireland, France, and Italy, there’s an air of change about this year’s Six Nations competition.
Only Eddie Jones and – for now – Gregor Townsend remain at the helm of their countries’ sides from last year.
Wayne Pivac, the former Scarlets coach, takes charge of Wales following Warren Gatland’s retirement. He has very big shoes to fill and his task is not made any easier by the failure of the WRU to retain the services of key backroom staff member Shaun Edwards.
There are five uncapped players in Wales’ 34-member squad for the tournament: Louis Rees-Zammit, Johnny McNicholl, Nick Tompkins, WillGriff John and Will Rowlands.
Rhys Webb also gained a recall having signed a contract with Ospreys following two years with Toulon which ruled him out of the Test arena.
It’s also a welcome return for prop Rob Evans, from Spittal, who was left out of Wales World Cup squad to widespread astonishment. Evans is a strong scrummager and powerful in the loose. He has been in destructive form on the loose-head side for Scarlets this season alongside his Welsh teammate Ken Owens.
Absent are the long-term injured Gareth Anscombe, Jonathan Davies, and Tomos Francis.
The absence of Jonathan Davies is likely to be keenly felt in midfield. While Owen Watkins is making a faster than expected recovery from his injury, Wales will need to reshuffle their settled three-quarter line which shone in the Rugby World Cup.
Among the options Wales are considering to replace their midfield general is moving George North inside from the wing to provide a physical presence and a different threat than the injured Lions centre.
Louis Rees-Zammit, the Gloucester winger, is one to watch out for; if he gets on the pitch, he’ll be the large red blur charging at the Italian defence. The eighteen-year-old flyer has been compared to George North in terms of size, speed, and predatory scoring ability. Despite representing Wales at U18 level, the Cardiff-born winger attended Gloucester’s rugby academy to fit in with his education at Hartpury College. Rumours that Eddie Jones tried to tempt him over to the dark side were quickly squashed when Rees-Zammitt was selected in the Wales senior squad.
At full-back, with Liam Williams ruled out of this weekend’s Italy game, Leigh Halfpenny is almost nailed on to start. The Scarlets number 15 has been in stellar form this season, offering threat in attack, solidity in defence, and reliability with his metronomic boot. His recovery from a serious concussion injury, which left him out of the game for a long period and ruled him out of last year’s Six Nations, has resulted in renewed determination from the Scarlets man.
“It only feels like yesterday I was one of the younger boys,” Halfpenny says.
“I’m one of the older ones now and it’s great for us as a squad to have fantastically talented youngsters coming through. It’s strengthening us as a team and there is a lot of competition.
“It does make me realise I’m probably in the latter stages of my career. When I look back on it, it has all gone so quick. It’s gone in the blink of an eye. It’s incredible. It’s always a privilege to hear your name read out for the Welsh squad and even though I am in the latter stages of my career, I’m still ambitious. I’m still hungry to achieve things, but I also want to enjoy every moment I have as much as possible at the moment.”
Leigh Halfpenny continued: “Last season the boys were absolutely outstanding. To achieve a Grand Slam was incredible and it’s now hugely exciting looking ahead to this Six Nations,” Halfpenny said.
“Our goal is to go and win the title again. That’s the challenge for us as a squad. We’ve got new coaches and management and that’s really exciting as well.
“It is a new era for the squad. What was achieved with the previous management was just incredible and the feeling in the group has been brilliant these last two weeks. The boys have come in full of energy and we can’t wait to get started with this Six Nations. Italy will be an extremely tough challenge. Both teams will want to get off to a positive start to the campaign. Having played Italy you know they do pose threats and they’re a tough team to crack. We’re going to have to be at our best to do that both in attack and defence. We want to get our Six Nations campaign off to the start we want which is with a win.”
Former Scarlets head coach Wayne Pivac is the man tasked with filling the boots of fellow New Zealander Warren Gatland, who steered Wales to three grand slams and two World Cup semi-final appearances during his 12-year reign.
“The guys have been made aware of the style of game we want and the positional and role specifics they will have to play,” says Pivac.
“The expectation is we are going to move a bit more ball and what I’m seeing at the moment is a great reaction. We’ve got a good vibe in the group and if the training sessions are anything to go by, we’ve got guys putting their hands up to take to the field.”
Pivac continued: “The boys had a fantastic competition to win the Grand Slam last year. History says this year is going to be tough with England and Ireland away, but that’s the challenge.
“That’s what motivates the best players and coaches. We think we have a draw that lends itself to us building into the competition. With no disrespect to any opponent, I think it’s nice we’ve got a home game to kick it off and you can certainly sense there is a bit of excitement.
“We are going to evolve our attack and that will take a bit of time. It took a bit of time with the Scarlets and I’m sure it will be no different at an international level, except we have got a higher calibre of player to work with across the board.”
Wales haven’t lost to Italy since 2007 and the Azzurri have never won in Cardiff since joining the Six Nations. The 2020 tournament will be their 21st season in the Championship.
Italy are now coached by Franco Smith and captained by hooker Luca Bigi with Sergio Parisse – who has skippered the team for so long – absent for the Cardiff clash.
“I think there will be a lot of continuity. I think Wayne is very smart in the way he goes about things,” said Smith.
“He spent five years in Wales – there’s a reason why they’ve appointed him after Warren. It’s going to be again a big physical challenge, but I do think they will bring a bit of an attacking edge. The style Wayne played at the Scarlets will be noticeable in the new approach.
Llanelli Warriors RFC Win World Award
THE LLANELLI WARRIORS were named double Ability Rugby International Champions, the results announced with perfect timing just as the Warriors held their presentation evening.
The Ability Rugby International Championship compares the results of all the mixed ability sides across the globe, with an emphasis on games played but with a win element incorporated.
The results for 2018/29 have been much delayed but saw the Warriors regain the title from Scottish National Clan team. They edged out newcomers the Dragon Allstars who were playing their debut season. The 2019/20 season may have been curtailed, but the Warriors still managed more fixtures than any other mixed ability side, this time edging out another new side, the Port Talbot Panthers.
Mixed Ability rugby sees players with and without disabilities play alongside each other and against ‘normal’ rugby clubs. The concept continues to spread rapidly and the days when it was just the Warriors and their Swansea rivals the Gladiators, have long gone. 10 years ago the 1st sides started forming outside of West Wales and there are now over 100 teams and groups world wide.
Captain Richard Evans was very proud. “It takes a lot to organise fixtures regularly so this is a great reward for all our efforts. The boys are very committed and we just love to play. It’s great to see so many sides playing now and it’s great to be at the forefront of the movement”.
The news boosted the Warriors presentation evening where they looked back over their season.
James Anthony was the main beneficiary, playing his 1st full season his pace on the wing and accurate boot helped him lift the Top Points Scorer award and the Player of the Year titles.
Players’ Player went to 2nd row Tom Ashour. Quick enough to have previously played on the wing, he proved a reliable source of lineout ball and was always combative around the field.
Luke Pearse was named Most Improved Player, narrowly beating Will Browne, Lloyd Cawley and Dan Grinter.
The most closely contested was Sportsman where Luke Pearse, Arwel Thomas and Dan John were pipped by Chris Davies. The nominees were described as the glue of the club by Chairman Gwilym Lewis, and vital to the teams success.
The Warriors are especially anxious for Covid regulations to lift as the new season will be their 25th. Planning is difficult at present but they hope to have a number of special fixtures. At the end of the season they are due to head out to Ireland for the 3rd Mixed Ability world tournament which will feature 24 clubs from 8 different countries.
New look Cwm aiming to bounce back
During the lockdown period Ryan Stephens and his Cwmamman United
management team took the opportunity to undertake a major review of the
playing set up at the club and with training now having returned they have
already started implementing their exciting plan.
“ It was extremely disappointing to be moved down from Cymru South league
following the FAW average points formula, particularly when our form since
January suggested we could well stay up” said Ryan “ but these are difficult
times and to be honest we had not been consistent enough over the season”
Ryan continued ” We realised though that this was an opportunity to take a
good look at ourselves and create an identity and foundation where we could
enhance the way we developed our players and improve our professionalism.”
The club has recently introduced a new range of training and fitness
programmes, improved technical data and analysis capabilities as well as
create a players charter enhancing team spirit.
“ We have been busy bringing in a mix of young and experienced players to
join a squad where we have been lucky to keep a large group of key players
from last season” said Ryan. ” Combined with a strong group of existing key
young local talent that we expect to see step up this season and with two
strong reserve sides we feel we are in a really good place team wise. It is great
to see everyone buying in to the new approach”
“ We recognise this will be an extremely difficult league with many strong
sides but we are really excited about the challenge to get back to the Cymru
South. We aim to be a club where our players feel truly valued and our club
members, supporters and the community feel proud. We will continue our
preparations so that once it is safe to resume matches again we will be ready.”
Tomi Lewis the latest to sign
FLYING wing Tomi Lewis has become the latest player to agree a new contract for the 2020-21 season.
The 21-year-old speedster is among a group of exciting young backs coming through the ranks at Parc y Scarlets.
A member of the Wales U20s squad that competed at the Junior World Championships in Argentina last year, Tomi has also shone on the world seven series, scoring seven tries in his debut tournament in Dubai as an 18-year-old.
A former pupil at Llandovery College, he came through the age-grade system at the Scarlets and scored on his senior debut in an Anglo-Welsh Cup clash against the Dragons. He impressed for the Scarlets A team during this season’s Celtic Cup and linked up on loan with Ampthill RFC in the English Championship in January.
Scarlets recently announced new deals for 17 members of their squad with Tomi becoming the 15th player who has come through the Scarlets system to have agreed a new contract.
“Tomi is another young player who has an exciting future in the game,” said head coach Glenn Delaney. “He is working hard in the squad and has already shown what he is capable of playing for Wales at U20s and Sevens level. He is one of a number of talented young backs we are looking forward to seeing in Scarlets colours.”
Tomi said: “I am delighted to have signed a new deal with the Scarlets. I have been here since the age of 16 and have been fortunate to have been able to learn from some great players.
“At the moment, it is fantastic being in the squad alongside internationals like Liam Williams, Leigh Halfpenny, Johnny McNicholl and Steff Evans and I’m looking forward to competing for the Scarlets jersey over the coming years.”
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