In today’s edition of ‘Starting XVII’ we focus on the second of our home nations, Wales.
The Welsh have struggled in the past two tournaments, failing to win a World Cup game since they finished fourth in 2000.
They face a tough group again next year, coming up against Tonga, Papua New Guinea and the Cook Islands but could easily cause an upset.
Here’s how we think they’ll line up…
Fullback – Caleb Aekins
Penrith fullback Aekins is the sole NRL representative in the Wales line up. The 22-year-old has been named in Wales train-on squads in the past but is yet to make his debut, with injuries robbing him of an international bow so far. Should he stay fit, however, he’s a shoo in to make John Kear’s side. He’s currently the Panthers’ second-choice fullback but has the evasiveness and defensive solidity needed to line up in the no.1 jersey.
Wingers – Rhys Williams and Regan Grace
These two virtually pick themselves. Grace has been among Super League’s top wingers since breaking onto the scene in 2016, with his blistering pace and acrobatic finishing seeing him average at least one try every two games. Williams, meanwhile, has been superb for Salford after an excellent five seasons with London Broncos, where he scored 100 tries in 152 games.
Centres – Rhys Evans and Elliot Kear
Similarly to the men outside them, Evans and Kear have been mainstays in the Welsh squad for some years. Kear was appointed captain at the end of 2018 and, as one of the senior players, is likely to keep that honour going forward. Evans’ career has seen him experience all three professional European divisions. His most prolific stint, with Warrington, saw him play over 100 games, scoring 45 tries, and earn a reputation as one of the competition’s top defensive centres.
Halves – Lloyd White and Josh Ralph
There are a couple of options in the halves but this is, as it stands, probably the best pairing. Cardiff-born White has over 150 games-worth of experience having played for Crusaders, Widnes and Toulouse as well as a stint in Australia. He’s calm, composed and has superb distribution. 22-year-old Ralph is an exciting young talent currently playing in the lower leagues in Australia. He debuted for Wales at the 2017 World Cup and last played for Easts Tigers in the Intrust Super Cup.
Props – Gil Dudson and Craig Kopczak
This experienced front row pairing will have the responsibility of leading from the front down the middle. Both have years of Super League experience and, along with Ben Flower, have been key men in John Kear’s forward pack for years. Flower will add significant punch off the bench but based on their form in the past two years, Dudson and Kopczak take the starting spots.
Hooker – Matty Fozard
The London Broncos man showed he is capable of mixing it with the big names during his side’s season in Super League in 2019. A stocky hooker, the 25-year-old played 23 times for the Broncos last season, scoring three tries and showing up well in defence. He’s been part of the Wales setup since 2014 and will be a crucial part of the Dragons’ spine.
Second Rowers – Chester Butler and Ben Evans
Before joining Huddersfield mid-way through last season, Butler was touted as one of the top talents outside of Super League due to his performances for Halifax. A strong centre or back rower, the 24-year-old has the size and strength to hold his own in the forwards, adding further pace out wide. Evans, meanwhile, usually plies his trade as a prop but has been used in the back row by Kear in the past. He likely won’t be able to manage the same minutes as Butler will but will offer similar bursts of aggression and go-forward.
Loose Forward – Morgan Knowles
One of the true stars of this squad, the 23-year-old St Helens forward is the latest talent to roll off the club’s production line. He has risen to prominence in the Saints’ squad in recent years, drawing comparisons to club legends including Paul Sculthorpe and Chris Joynt. He’s an exceptional athlete and has a strong physique, as well as acting as a ball-playing loose forward.
Subs – Ben Flower, Dan Fleming, Rhodri Lloyd and Connor Davies
Flower and Fleming are the heavy hitters from the bench. Veteran Flower brings 12 years of experience to the side, while 6 foot 3 Fleming provides plenty of size and power. A former Welsh captain, Lloyd has been a mainstay in the side for years and adds experience and leadership, while 23-year-old Halifax second rower or hooker Connor Davies narrowly pips his twin brother Curtis to the final spot.