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Getting Older With Grace . . . New Boy Regan is Backed to Have Big Impact for Wales

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By Graham Thomas

It’s said time moves faster as you get older and that certainly feels true if you’re a Welsh rugby fan.

One minute you’re celebrating a record win over Australia at the World Cup, the next you’re wondering if a victory is possible against the same opponents after seven straight defeats.

The speeding clock certainly moves faster when it comes to players switching from rugby league.

It took Anthony Sullivan 16 games over two spells to convert from a Super League and international wing into a rugby union cap for Wales.

At the time, everyone thought that was a quick transition, but now another great St Helens winger is threatening to do it much, much faster. 

Regan Grace may have been a last minute call-up to the Wales squad currently preparing for the two-Test series against the Wallabies which kicks-off in Sydney on Saturday, but there is every chance Warren Gatland will take a look at him.

Rio Dyer and Liam Williams played on the flanks against South Africa two weeks ago at Twickenham, while Mason Grady, another wing option, played at centre. Williams is equally at home at full back and the only other wing options are Gloucester new boy Josh Hathaway and Grace.

There are many obvious questions still to be answered about Grace. Is the Achilles tendon injury that ruined his transfer to Racing 92 from St Helens sufficiently well rehabbed for him to play at the top level?

Will having only two friendly appearances for Bath this year give him enough background in rugby union to be plunged into a Test match against the Wallabies? 

Has the injury blunted his pace and finishing power, and just how big a gamble will it be giving him a shot on tour?

As far as Sullivan, who won two caps under Graham Henry before heading back to league, is concerned, there should be nothing to stop Grace making a successful transition.

“Both games have changed significantly over the past 25 years, but wing is still probably the easiest position in which to make the switch between the two codes. There aren’t that many differences these days,” says Sullivan.

“Regan is in a more advantageous position than I was because he grew up in rugby union before heading north in his teens. I’d never played any 15-a-side rugby before I joined Cardiff.

“His core skills are good, he’s quick, an excellent finisher, and he’s coming out of one highly professional rugby environment and moving into another. I had Clive Griffiths as defence coach to help me in the Wales set-up, and Regan will have Mike Forshaw.

“As (Wales forwards coach) Jonathan Humphreys said the other day ‘he’s a rugby player’. They will have the skills within their coaching environment to build on his talent and potential to ensure they get the best out of him.

“The basis to playing wing in league or union is to win the contact when you have the ball in hand. He can do that.

“I watch a lot of rugby league and union and like to see myself as a student of both games. The back three functions in both codes are much more closely linked now than they used to be and you always have to think ahead.

“He’s used to taking high balls and cross field kicks and can be devastating in broken field play. He also showed at St Helens that he has a willingness to go looking for the ball, which is something I probably didn’t do enough of in either code.

“One of his key strengths is that he can get his side onto the front foot. If he can do that, then both he and Wales will be onto a good thing.”

Sullivan was one of the last rugby league converts into Welsh rugby along with Iestyn Harris at the turn of the century. Now it is Grace’s turn to try to make the grade coming the same way.

He will be coming into a team which is in total rebuild mode under Gatland. The Welsh record for most successive defeats is 10 from November 2002 to August 2003.

DragonBet make Wales 9/2 outsiders to beat the Wallabies on Saturday, with the Aussies firm favourites at 1/6.

With a start of 12.5, Wales are priced near even money at 5/6. The draw is 22/1.

After the two games in July in Australia, Gatland’s side face the Wallabies again, Fiji and South Africa in the Autumn Series. Grace will be learning alongside a number of talented, yet untried, youngsters.

For his part, Gatland has been told he largely remains on plan despite suffering a first Six Nations whitewash in history. 

New WRU chief executive Abi Tierney claimed last week that everything is geared to being successful at the 2027 World Cup.

That is, so long as the short-term doesn’t trip up the long-term.

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