Wales Rugby League are celebrating 20 years of junior Rugby League internationals this year, and the current crop of U16 and U17 players take to the field this Sunday at Stadiwm Zipworld in Colwyn Bay to take on England Lions.
On October 7, 2001, a Wales U15 side, that had previously beaten the South of England home and away, played their first fully fledged international match as they beat Scotland 84-0 in Warrington – a venue chosen as it was roughly a halfway point for the players.
Those players then graduated to U16s to take on England in 2003 and that age-group was then kept for all subsequent years.
An U19 side was introduced in 2002 as they took on a touring France outfit who had already beaten Scotland 47–4, England 18-10 and Great Britain 18-10. Wales lost 28-20 but had shocked the French by going 10-0 up on 20 minutes.
It was only a matter of time before some of these junior players were given a chance for the full Wales men’s side and it was Lee Williams and Gil Dudson who became the first of 16 (so far) to win U16, U19 and full Wales men’s caps when they turned out against England in a one-off test in Doncaster in 2008.
Many of these 16 players are still playing in the professional rugby league system. Regan Grace and Morgan Knowles have been winning trophies with St Helens and played for Wales in Australia in the 2017 Rugby League World Cup. Gil Dudson is also still in Super League playing for Super League leaders Catalans Dragons in France.
Gil Dudson, who won a Challenge Cup winners medal at Wembley with Wigan Warriors, says: “Winning my first cap for Wales U16 was one of the proudest moments in my rugby career. All I ever wanted to do was play for Wales so to achieve that was amazing, and to get to play in front my family against a talented England side was something I’ll never forget. To then go on and play for the Wales first team was again a super proud moment for my family and I as it was something I never even thought possible. Wales have traditionally had a talented men’s team so to be a small part of that history is really special to me. Good luck to all the U16 and U17 players for this weekend and to all you have ahead of you.”
Rhys and Ben Evans both played in the Super League for Warrington Wolves, with Rhys playing at Wembley in a Challenge Cup Final.
Rhys Evans says: “Getting my first U16s cap was a massive honour for me as it was representing my country at the highest level possible for me at that age and something I was extremely proud of. Getting my full cap was one of my best memories to play in a World Cup opening game at the Millennium Stadium with your brother, doesn’t get much better than that. I wish all the players and staff good luck for Sunday.”
Ben Evans says: “To come through the junior ranks and then to play for the senior side means everything for me, and because I was able to do it alongside my brother meant it was extra special. I’m sure it’ll be just as special for everyone who’s now in the Wales U16 and U17 – good luck to everyone who plays against England on Sunday.”
The Evans twins now star in the RFL Championship, as do the Davies twins – Connor and Curtis, who along with Sion Jones are now in the Halifax Panthers first team, whilst former Wigan Warriors Super League player Rhodri Lloyd, who was the youngest player to ever play for the Wales men’s side and eventually turned out in the 2013 and 2017 World Cups for Wales, is now the Swinton Lions captain.
Lloyd says: “I made my Wales U16 debut against England in Blackwood, just up the road from my home town village in Ystrad Mynach. There were quite a few future Super League players in that England side. I remember my family being there and how proud and happy they were watching me represent the proud nation of Wales. For me, representing Wales was a dream come true. My first full men’s game for Wales was against Italy when I was only 17 and I made my debut alongside Gareth Thomas. When you represent Wales, you’re not just representing yourself or your family, you represent three million other passionate Welsh people who will always back you. I hope everyone who plays on Sunday will be just as proud as I was and I wish you all the best. Pob lwc.”
Connor Davies adds: “Wales U16s was an exciting time and start of an amazing journey. It was a real buzz to be able to be involved within a small group who were fortunate to be given the opportunity to showcase what we were about, and test myself against people who were at academies of the bigger clubs. To then play for Wales men was a really proud and grateful experience – it felt like a reward and recognition to parents and family for their help, support, commitment and sacrifice to take me everywhere to play rugby league. It’s a real honour to be able walk in the same footsteps as some special players in years gone by and it’s really exciting for any opportunity to wear the special red jersey. All the best to the new U16 and U17 boys, take the challenge on head first. Enjoy the challenge – don’t just dip your toes in because it will pass by real quickly, don’t be sat with your own thoughts after thinking you could’ve done a bit more. Pob lwc.”
Ollie Olds and Lee Williams both now live in Australia after being signed by clubs in the Queensland Cup, whilst Connor Farrer is still in action in Australia.
Lee Williams says: “I would like to wish all of the Wales Rugby League under 16s and 17s teams all the best of luck in their matches on Sunday. All of the players should be very excited and extremely proud of their achievement in getting to represent Wales Rugby League. Getting picked for Wales at U16 level and then eventually for the full men’s side was a very proud moment for myself.”
A further 15 players, who joined the Wales Rugby League junior system when they were over 16, have gone onto win U19 and full men’s caps. These include current men’s side captain Elliot Kear as well as other Super League stars like Ben Flower, Rhys Williams and Lloyd White.
On Sunday, we could be seeing the first step to Super League and World Cup stardom for the latest batch of Welsh developed youngsters.
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