Head coach Chris Horsman will take his Wales squad to South Africa this weekend for the U18 International Series for what will be one of their toughest tests of the year.
Ever since 2012 the best of Wales’ teenage players have headed to Stellenbosch to join teams from South African Schools, England and France for a triangular tournament that has proved the breeding ground for many future internationals.
Included in Warren Gatland’s current World Cup training squad are a number of graduates from the seven previous South African summer safaris – Josh Adams (2013), Hallam Amos (2012), Adam Beard (2013), Leon Brown (2015), Rhys Carre (2016), Elliot Dee (2012), Ryan Elias (2013), Steff Evans (2013), Dillon Lewis, Nicky Smith (2012), Owen Watkin (2014) and Tomos Williams (2013).
A change in age range will mean this side will be younger than many of the previous teams and the only players to return after the 2018 trip, when Wales lost an epic battle with the South African Schools team 43-40 before beating England 26-20, are Bath Academy prop Archie Griffin and Dragons centre Morgan Richards.
Griffin is one of a number of Exiles players in the 26-strong squad that includes the Millfield School full back Dan John, son of former Wales scrum half Paul John. Looking to earn his first cap at this age will be outside half Ben Burnell, whose father Justin Burnell is a former Wales U19 head coach and the current director of rugby at Pontypridd.
“There has been a change in the age grade system. With every country moving to January 1, from September 1, as an academic school date it meant we were only having one fixture at Under 18 level,” said Horsman.
“So we decided to fall in line with the international calendar. That’s why we’ve brought in the Under 19 team to give players another opportunity to play international rugby.
“It worked really well for us last season with U19 games against Japan and England. This group going to South Africa is more of an U17 team.
“In the past, the group we’ve taken has been 6-8 months older and a lot of the current group are in the first year of sixth form. It’s a younger group, but a very talented group.
“We’ve got a lot of strength in depth in certain positions and for the first time in a few years we’ve got a very good batch of second rows – James Fender, Ben Carter, Chris Tshiunza a. There is also some real strength in depth in the back-row.
“One of the strengths of our performance pathway is we are very aligned all the way through. Coaches of the 18s, 19s and 20s all sit at the same desk, whereas in other countries they only get together in tournament time.
“When you look at our results and performances at age grade level, along with the number of players who transition successfully into regional rugby and the senior international side, we do pretty well.
“But as with everything we can do better. That’s why we’re always challenging what we’re doing in order to become truly world class.”
The team will kick-off against the South African Schools team on 9 August and four days later will meet South African Schools A. They complete their trip with a game against France on 17 August.
Wales U18 Squad
Full Backs: Dan John (Exiles), Jake Morgan (Dragons)
Wings: Carrick McDonough (Dragons), Jake Thomas (Cardiff Blues)
Centres: Morgan Richards (Dragons), Mason Grady (Cardiff Blues), Joe Hawkins (Ospreys), Bradley Roderick (Ospreys)
Outside halves: Ben Burnell (Cardiff Blues), Tom Matthews (Northampton)
Scrum halves: Luke Davies (Scarlets), Ethan Lloyd (Cardiff Blues)
Props: Theo Bevacqua (Harlequins), Archie Griffin (Bath), Lewys Jones (Ospreys), Kieran Stevens (Ospreys)
Hookers: Oliver Burrows (Ospreys), Rhodri King (Scarlets)
Second rows: Ben Carter (Dragons), James Fender (Ospreys), Rhys Thomas (Ospreys), Christ Tshiunza (Exeter Chiefs)
Back rows: Ollie Howard (Dragons), Travis Huntley (Ospreys), Alex Mann (Cardiff Blues), Peter Vickers (Wasps)
U18 International Series fixtures (all times BST)
Friday 9 August 2019 – Paul Roos Gymnasium, Stellenbosch
12:00 SA Schools A vs France U18
13:30 England U18 vs Argentina U18
15:00 SA Schools vs Wales U18
Tuesday 13 August 2019 – Paarl Gymnasium, Paarl
12:00 SA Schools A vs Wales U18
13:30 SA Schools vs Argentina U18
15:00 England U18 vs France U18
Saturday 17 August 2019 – Hugenote High, Wellington
11:00 SA Schools A vs Argentina U18
12:30 France U18 vs Wales U1814:00 SA Schools vs England U18