The next three Wales kids most likely to be in Warren Gatland's squad by next year

-Credit: (Image: Huw Evans Agency)
-Credit: (Image: Huw Evans Agency)

For the next month Warren Gatland's full focus will be on ensuring Wales leave Australia with at least one victory, but no doubt he will also be keeping an eye on proceedings over in South Africa.

While the senior squad prepare to take on the Wallabies, Wales U20s begin their World Rugby U20 Championship campaign against New Zealand in Cape Town. The U20s has been the pathway to the senior national side for some time, but over the next few years it will arguably take on even greater importance.

With the majority of Welsh rugby's golden generation having retired there is no other option but to invest in youth. This time last year Cameron Winnett was lining up at full-back for Wales U20s out in South Africa, whereas Mackenzie Martin had to make do with a place on the replacements bench more often than not.

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But just months later, Winnett finds himself Wales' first-choice 15 in the senior squad while Martin is also a fully-fledged international player. The senior Wales squad is far from settled and there are clear areas in need of an injection of fresh blood.

Having spent a day embedded in the Wales U20s training camp before heading out to South Africa, it was evident how much the players were inspired by how quickly Winnett and Martin have become senior internationals.

"Maybe last year or the year before it was far fetched to say things like that," said Wales U20s captain Ryan Woodman. "You didn't really see it as much but this year it's a lot closer and more around the corner than you might think."

Well it definitely could be just around the corner for Woodman, who is one of the finest prospects in the Welsh game.

One position where Gatland really could do with more options is at blindside flanker, where he has been desperately searching for a big, physical carrier since Ross Moriarty left for Brive. Scarlets man Taine Plumtree could well be the man to fill this problem position, while Christ Tshiunza is also an option, although he may be employed more in the second-row moving forward.

Alex Mann is another who will be in contention, but it would be a surprise if Woodman wasn't seriously considered within the next 18 months or so. The Dragons blindside missed the U20s Six Nations due to an injury to a finger but made his return towards the end of the United Rugby Championship season.

Woodman has used his time off to good effect putting on considerable size. The 20-year-old has all the physical attributes to play Test rugby and his Wales U20s head coach Richard Whiffin believes he will make the step up to the senior national side in the near future.

"He's put on a lot of good weight and he's a big man who gives us a physical presence while he's also an outstanding lineout operator," said Whiffin. "Added to that he is a genuine leader.

"He's amazing at being able to calm the team. His ability to calm a situation on the field is going to stand us in good stead.

"He's a top player and a top individual who works incredibly hard at his game. Therefore he has every attribute to become a senior Wales international but I'm glad we've got him for this tournament because I wouldn't have been surprised if he was out in Australia."

It would be a big surprise if Ospreys No 8 Morgan Morse didn't win a senior cap within the next year and a half, too. The 19-year-old is a phenomenal prospect and has the potential to one day develop into a world-class player.

Morse is an explosive and dynamic carrier who is capable of making big post contact metres while he very rarely loses the physical contributions. His work off the ball and at the breakdown is also top class.

Morse is a special player with serious X-factor who is capable of doing things out of the ordinary. It remains to be seen whether the injury prone Taulupe Faletau will ever play for Wales again while Aaron Wainwright has been a shining light in a dark season for Welsh rugby.

But Wales do lack strength in depth at both No 8 and blindside while Morse could be a mainstay by the 2027 Rugby World Cup in Australia. Another player who is very highly regarded and could rise through the ranks rapidly is Bath centre Louie Hennessey.

The 20-year-old has all the attributes Gatland has historically admired in centres while he certainly has the size to make an impact. Hennessey is a powerful carrier who can get over the gain-line easily but his offloading game is his real point of difference.

The Bath man's outrageous offload in Wales U20s defeat to Ireland in 2023 had All Blacks great Sonny Bill Williams purring on social media platform X. Hennessey is one of those players who tends to draw in defenders with his offloading game putting his teammates into space.

Wales are still trying to work out the balance in midfield but Hennessey should come into the reckoning fairly quickly. It's also worth pointing out there is a far greater alignment between the senior national side and the U20s than there has ever been.

Gatland, Rob Howley, Alex King, Jonathan Humphreys and Mike Forshaw regularly attend training sessions with the age grade sides, even participating in them. Wales U20s players are also sometimes invited to train with the senior side.

The hope is this will smooth the transition between the U20s and the national side making it easier for players to come through.