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Wales Aim To Leap From 10th To 5th . . . And It Starts Down Under

By Graham Thomas

Top five in the world . . . that’s the ambitious target the Welsh Rugby Union have set for the men’s and women’s teams in their shiny new strategic plan.

Warren Gatland’s team – on the back of seven successive defeats – are currently 10th in the world rankings, while Ioan Cunningham’s side are eighth.

Cunningham’s women’s team play Spain on Saturday at Cardiff Arms Park in their WXV2 tournament play-off, while Gatland’s squad flew out to Australia on Wednesday and play the first of two Tests against the Wallabies next week.

Being in the top five will not be easy for either side as one of the main factors to emerge from the launch of their strategy was the WRU’s admission that money is tight and getting tighter.

The big plan extends to making the Welsh regions competitive, too, with a target of competing consistently in the knockout stages of their tournaments.

They are a long way off that at present , but Cardiff, the Dragons, the Ospreys and the Scarlets saw their funding slashed by £2m each last season and will see it cut further to £4.5m for 2024-25.

In the international men’s game, the top five are currently: South Africa, Ireland, New Zealand, France and England.

Next week’s opponents, Australia, are currently ninth, one place above Gatland’s strugglers.

For the WRU, getting into the top five in the men’s game is not just about status, or keeping supporters happy.

It’s about pounds, shillings and pence.

The men’s team is the biggest financial driver for the game and if the Union are to turn around their financial mess, then they will need to fix their on-field mess, first.

That fact was admitted by WRU chief executive Abi Tierney, who said: “At the heart of this strategy is success on the field.

“That drives ticket sales, brings sponsorships and that money funds the rest of the game, which provides the foundation for the professional game.

“Every element of this strategy needs to work for success on the pitch.”

That is why for all Gatland’s talk about building a team for the next World Cup, he needs to deliver results in the short-term.

If he doesn’t, the sponsors and broadcasters drop the level of their contract offers, and the fans stop buying tickets.

Once that happens, the pressure ramps up on Gatland and winning becomes a necessity in order to save his job.

The strategy includes age group teams and they are expected to deliver the tricky double-header of winning games, whilst also providing the stars of the future.

Wales U20s are currently in South Africa for their version of the World Cup, played annually, the World Rugby U20 Championship.

Wales play New Zealand – the famed Baby Blacks – on Saturday evening, in their opening fixture.

It’s only five years since Dewi Lake captained Wales to an 8-7 victory over New Zealand, only the second Welsh under-20 victory over the age grade All Blacks.

So, wins over Kiwi kids don’t come around very often, which is reflected in the match odds.

DragonBet have Wales as massive 16-1 outsiders to win, with New Zealand hot favourites at 1/33, the same price as a draw.

There are bigger outsiders in the tournament this weekend. Fiji are 25/1 shots to beat South Africa, while if you want a real long shot, then get on Spain. The emerging rugby nation have taken the Sevens world by storm but they are 40/1 shots for this one.

Wales U20 coach Richard Whiffin says: “We have got power throughout the team with genuine athletes in all areas of the field.

“The way we want to play is to move the ball and express ourselves in the wider channels – hopefully we have a team who can be competitive in what is an extremely competitive pool.”

Spain and France are Wales’ other pool opponents.

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