The postponement of the Six Nations U20 championship may have been a body blow for Wales head coach Gareth Williams and his team, but he remains upbeat the competition will go ahead at some point in the near future.
Williams has already discovered you have to roll with the punches in the current climate as COVID-19 continues to cause havoc with the national age grade programme.
After-all, he was the coach of the first Welsh team to play a game without a crowd in the final round of last year’s U20 Six Nations championship when Wales lost to Scotland on March 13 2020 at Stadiwm Zipworld.
“We have had such uncertainty about how things would unfold and develop and we’re probably still in that position now so nobody could have expected what we have been dealing with as a society really, let alone a sport so it has been pretty surreal times,” reflected Williams.
Williams is also head coach of Transitional Players, tasked with working with the best young talent in Wales to ensure they reach their potential. Without any game time for 10 months, he has had to modify his usual coaching methods as players have come to terms with their inactivity.
“As anybody’s role in general life, things have changed dramatically in the last 10 months and it has very much been a case of adapting – that’s from a coaching point of view, playing point of view, everybody has had to adapt on a huge scale.
“Early on we were uncertain what the pro game would look like, what returning regional squads would look like. We’ve been fortunate a lot of players were in those transition groups, we’ve been able to have them in with senior squads across the regions so that has been brilliant.
“I know the work that has gone on working around the COVID restrictions, it’s all been very difficult in the last 10 months across rugby as a whole. But I know a number of players have moved up from last year’s U20s and that’s promising from that point of view.”
With all domestic rugby being stopped in its tracks, some concerns have been raised in some quarters that there is a danger players will leave the game through a lack of game time or lack of interest or a combination of both. So, is Williams worried players will leave in their droves?
“There is always a concerning element of that,” admitted Williams, before adding: “Last week we were preparing for an Under 20 Six Nations just before it got postponed.
“We totally understand the postponement but even if we had finished the whole programme of Six Nations rugby we would have been in a position where we hadn’t run the traditional talent ID element towards the U20s so we are quite conscious of that, we would have had retrospectively run a talent ID process on that basis because it is a concern.
“We have a small player pool in Wales and there is a risk here that it could diminish further but what we have got to do, as we have been doing over the last 10 months, is adapt when we are allowed to with the restrictions in mind, then move forward towards rectifying that.
“From an U20s point of view we would have had camps back in October, November through December and at the start of January that would have refined the talent ID process. Those elements haven’t been able to be put in place for obvious reasons due to the restrictions.
“Like I said, if we had completed a full Six Nations programme we have got to be aware that there is still a retrospective talent ID element to undertake and that is how we are going to have to be as a Union – we are going to have to adapt when we can come out of this and make sure that we can re-engage those players who missed out on that talent ID opportunity and make sure we can explore the talent that we know is out there and is actually missing out.”
Williams said it was ‘brilliant’ to actually coach four training sessions in preparation for the Six Nations campaign before the postponement.
“Speaking closely to the regional academy managers and coaches, that element of competition really helps with regards to the player motivational side of things. So even over the Christmas period where the players knew they were coming in to the environment in early January – their regional academy managers said they saw a big difference in their approach to training. Where they may have been plateauing off in certain areas, it really added to that and that’s really shone across the sessions which I’ve enjoyed being involved in on the pitch with the players.
“Traditionally we would have camps in October, November and December – that’s my opportunity to start building relationships. As a coach I build those relationships with the players and get to know them as personalities, being on the pitch with them, continually in conversation with them off the pitch about the technical and tactical side of things but also learning their holistic ambitions as well as around their education. So getting that opportunity over the last two weeks was brilliant from my point of view.
“We were four weeks out from the Irish game when we started, we had 16 players who are in training with regional senior environments and a couple across the bridge as well so this was really an intervention for players who are only involved in their academy structures at the moment.
“It’s been brilliant that the academies have been back up and running and players have been having a physical intervention and skills sessions – this was just an opportunity to take it that little bit further as well and bring a larger group together – it was brilliant to have those four sessions.”
The Wales U20s will continue training under COVID testing protocols as they await confirmation of their fixtures.
“We’ll continue to work with the academies,” says Williams, “It was a very short period of preparation towards that Irish game, one we were ready for but this just now elongates our time.
“The Six Nations have put a working group together and they’ll decide when the rearranged competition is played – we’ll be in position then when we know the time scale we have got. That’s great from a player welfare point of view that we get more time to actually build these boys up from a scrummaging point of view, contact point of view, etc.”
There is an argument that young players don’t get a chance in Welsh regional rugby but the likes of Tiaan Thomas-Wheeler, Dewi Lake, Jack Morgan, Ben Carter, Sam Costelow, Morgan Jones and Jac Price are just some of the players who have come through the U20 pathway in recent times to force their way into senior reckoning.
“In Wales, I view the pathway like a tool box – we’ve got so many pathways – the U20s is just one of those and it’s a tool we can use to give a player at that period of their development that exposure – it’s great to have worked with those boys. You can see how the amount of work they have put in themselves personally in all aspects of their development.
“It’s great to see them go on and achieve as much as they possibly can – there is long list across the years, and a long list of coaches who have had input to them and it’s great to see because I know the efforts that have gone in across the different stages of the pathway and having worked first hand with those boys, I’ve seen the amount of effort they have put in so it’s great to see.”
Two players still at his disposal, Scarlets fly half Sam Costelow and Dragons second row Ben Carter have played starring roles for their regions this season.
“That’s credit to them as players to be fair,” says Williams. “They are very diligent and good young professionals and hopefully that exposures increases and we can move them forward over the coming years because it is a constant process and is a constant evolution of where they are as players.”