Last March Wales U20s ended their Six Nations campaign with a defeat at the hands of their Italian counterparts in Colwyn Bay which consigned them to fifth place in the table. Fast forward to July and the majority of the same squad beat the Azzurri on their own patch, and are preparing for the final of the U20s Six Nations Summer Series.
It has been a long road for this Wales U20s side which has included a lot of soul searching but hard work pays off as has been evident this summer with Byron Hayward’s side overcoming stern challenges from Scotland, Georgia, and Italy, respectively to deservedly cement their place in the final.
Arguably the biggest area of improvement has come up front with the return of Exeter Chiefs second rows Christ Tshiunza and Dafydd Jenkins making a significant difference. But behind every success is an unsung hero, and in Wales’ case it is forwards coach Richard Kelly.
“There were some dark times and some tough moments in that Six Nations,” admits Kelly. “I think it is a mark of their character how hard they’ve worked during that Six Nations period, how they kept their heads up, carried on working, and carried on grafting for each other.
“Hopefully, the results these guys have put in shows how far they’ve come. We are excited to give it a good go in the final last week.
“There were some real tough moments in the Italy game, and we had to make some big decisions over how we rejuggle things when it came to yellow cards.
“The best thing about it all is that on the field the players managed it well. They controlled the situations well and as a result we managed to come out with a win.”
Wales’ pack are now a force to be reckoned with in U20s rugby, and Kelly has succeeded in turning them into a cohesive unit who relish the physical confrontations. During last night’s epic victory over Italy lock Tshiunza, who has already been capped by Wales at senior level, was nothing short of totemic.
Just before half-time with Italy having been on top for a lot of the half the Exeter man took matters into his own hands taking a quickly taken penalty to smash his way over the try line. And Kelly is amazed at the quality of Tshiunza while he also praised the performance of Wales’ props.
“It is easy to forget that this was his third game of rugby in six months,” said Kelly. “When you look at the performance he put in with his leg drive, and his physicality.
“I thought there were some fantastic performances in the pack all round. He really led the way with his ball carrying. I thought the tightheads really dealt with the Italian scrum really well.
“They deserve a lot of credit for what they’ve done because it is a big task with how dominant the Italian scrum has been so far in this tournament.”
Wales will face stern challenge against a ferocious South Africa U20s side in the final next week. The Baby Boks who brushed aside the likes of England and France with relative ease, and Wales will have to be at their very best to beat them.
“The boys are buzzing to know that we are in the final,” said Kelly. “We will prepare as thoroughly as we can and look forward to a tough challenge.”