Wales' talent manager reveals area they will be strong in years to come and Gatland will be delighted

-Credit: (Image: John Myers)
-Credit: (Image: John Myers)

The focus of the average Welsh rugby fan will understandably be on Wales' summer tour of Australia over the next few weeks, but events in South Africa are arguably just as important.

Welsh rugby's current selling point is its focus on the game's future, with a huge emphasis on getting the pathways and the academies working to optimum levels. One man who is central in this is former Ospreys lock Andy Lloyd, who is the Welsh Rugby Union's talent and pathways manager.

Lloyd is one of Welsh rugby's unsung heroes and is well respected within the game. Presently he is out in South Africa fulfilling his role as team manager of Wales U20s who open their World Rugby U20 Championship campaign against New Zealand in Cape Town on Saturday.

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Lloyd is an integral part of Welsh rugby's pathway, ensuring the right players are being developed with the aim of pushing them through into Warren Gatland's senior side.

"I help look after the pathway from U16s and the academies upwards," he tells WalesOnline. "I'm hands on with the U20s as team manager but help oversee the U18s with Richie Pugh. A big part of my role is depth charting in Wales and making sure we get really good opinions on the top boys and some of the boys we've got coming through.

"The reason I team manage the 20s is from January to July we are with them most of the time so it's pretty intense. We form really strong opinions on them within the group and then with John Alder I look after the academies.

"We've recently put the new academy licence in. That falls under my remit as does how we police it going forward."

Welsh rugby is currently going through a rough patch with the senior men's national side recently finishing the Six Nations with the Wooden Spoon and all four professional sides struggling. The only way out of its current predicament is to invest heavily in young talent with a greater focus on ensuring the pathway produces players of quality.

WRU performance director Huw Bevan has set out the target of producing "more and better players" and Lloyd will play a big role in that.

"It starts from U15s with the Emerging Player Programme (EPP)," said Lloyd. "Not one person can identify everyone so there is a filter process. We are making sure we are all looking for the same people, the same attributes and from top to bottom from Gats in the first team to all the regions we all need to understand what we are looking for in a player.

"Basically as the boys get older they go through different stages and by the time they get through U20s we have most of the boys in the academies, but we are still looking in universities and Super Rygbi Cymru. We've got a few boys here who aren't in academies but we still want to give them a go because some people develop a little bit later, especially mentally.

"Sometimes it takes a bump in the road for some of these boys to actually work a little bit harder and show what they can so. Sometimes initially missing out on an academy spot is not a bad thing because you get to see the real make up of the boys and if they want it they'll still keep coming."

One of the biggest weaknesses of the senior Wales side during the Six Nations was the lack of explosive ball carriers in the front five capable of making serious post contact metres while tighthead prop is also an issue. Wales, who have one of the smallest playing pools of all the tier one nations, have always been at a disadvantage to many other nations when it comes to size in the front-five.

But Lloyd is quietly confident there are some quality players coming through the pathway who could one day fit the bill.

"We've got to pull every thread to make sure that doesn't happen," he said. "Part of reviewing the academy license and making sure these boys are in the gym and are being fed properly, we have to try everything we can. We've got some of the best physical specimens we've ever had through the system.

"Boys like Morgan Morse, Ryan Woodman and Kian Hire, they are a very good physical profile of player. But when it comes to the likes of France, South Africa and England their sheer numbers is a huge thing but we are getting more physical.

"We just haven't got the numbers of them. We've got three or four whereas England and France have eight or nine. But over the next few years I think we have a good crop of very good front-rowers coming through."

Lloyd also has a big role to play in ensuring players are looked after. The 43-year-old puts a huge effort into getting to know a player off the field while ensuring they get qualifications away from rugby so they have something to fall back on.

"The big part of my role is to get to know these boys as well as we can," he said. "We do a lot of small things which helps with their education, like we don't do any day sessions unless we are travelling.

"In the summer all our sessions start at 2.30pm because most of the boys are on study leave and then in the winter it's 3.30pm. There's no excuse for these boys not to go to school or university.

"We've got some really good contacts with the Welsh universities. Lloyd Ashley works really hard to understand where these boys are all the time.

"If things need to be moved or helped we are talking before every campaign so I understand what the commitments for these boys are. Luckily the U20s World Cup is now a month later.

"So, pre-Covid we had boys like Sam Costelow having to do exams out in Argentina which is really hard for them, whereas luckily now all the boys will be done with exams by the time we get on the plane. It affects all of our prep but all the boys are pretty much free of mind when we go out there.

"Last year Lucas de la Rua was doing an exam the morning we travelled but once we got out there he didn't have to think about it. It's really important these boys have more than one string to their bow."

Lloyd is also confident Wales will reap the rewards from the greater alignment between the senior side and the U20s over the coming seasons. For the first time ever the likes of Warren Gatland, Rob Howley, Alex King and Mike Forshaw regularly help out with U20s training sessions while they are heavily involved in the pathway.

"From day one since Rob (Howley) and Whiff (Richard Whiffin) came in most days in the warm-ups we had Whiff, Rob and Richie Pugh on the field coaching the boys every day," he said.

"That's our U18s head coach, our U20s head coach and a first team men's coaching member. Since then Rob has really pushed it so we can get Alex King in and we've had Mike Forshaw in.

"They are also taking a full interest in it and there's no twisting arms. What I have really enjoyed it's not just a token they are fully invested in these boys.

"They know who they are now and we constantly talking back and forth. Warren knows the names of the players and he's helping in training as well. It also puts the boys on high alert when a first team coach comes in and their standards seem to go up.

"There are certain things we do that the first team do like our calling systems and even down to if one of the U20s boys have to go in to help the first team squad during the Six Nations they get the gist of everything. Every time a boy steps up they'll be prepared."

Welsh rugby may be in a tough place but no stone is being left unturned in a bid to get it back on track.