WALES under-20s head coach Byron Hayward has named a 31-man squad for the forthcoming Under-20 Six Nations and selected Scarlets centre Steffan Hughes as his captain for the tournament.
Wales will return to Eirias, Colwyn Bay, for their three home matches this season – they kick off the campaign against Italy there on Friday, January 31 (7.10pm), host France on Saturday, February 22 (6.05pm), and complete the tournament at home to Scotland, on Friday, March 14 (7pm).
Wales finished last year's tournament as runners-up to England and went on to reach the final of the Junior World Championship in France. However, only eight of the 31 players in this season's squad have been capped by Wales under-20s, while Dafydd Howells has two senior international caps having toured Japan with Robin McBryde's Wales squad in June.
There is experience in the front row with four players having been a part of last year's squad – props Nicky Smith and Nicky Thomas, and hookers Ethan Lewis and Elliot Dee – two centres featured last season – skipper Steffan Hughes played a pivotal role in last season's campaigns – and Llandudno product Harri Evans. The other two players with Under-20 experience are wing Ashton Hewitt who played in the 2013 campaign and back row James Benjamin.
Hayward said: "We are starting from scratch to a certain extent but we are all looking forward to the challenge. We have learned a lot as a management team over the past two years and while our firm objective is to win every game, it's vital we use the Six Nations to develop strength in depth as we prepare to travel to New Zealand for the Junior World Championship.
"We have to be bold with our selection policy and expose all these players to international rugby. It's a fact-finding mission to a certain extent – not just about how the players perform on the pitch but how they conduct themselves off it too. We've had some really useful training sessions and last weekend's camp concluded with a productive conditioned game against the Welsh Students.
"The choice of Steffan (Hughes), as captain was first and foremost as a result of his experience as a key member of last year's successful side and the leadership he showed as a young player last season. He was a leader in our defensive system, but he is also a leader off the field. He is a true professional, very diligent and sets standards. He will no doubt be helped by the other experienced players, in the front row especially.”
Hayward is looking forward to returning to north Wales for the opening game of the tournament.
"We have had such a fantastic reception every time we've played in Eirias, the crowd gives us a real boost and we can't wait to get back there," he added.
"The first round of matches is always an unknown quantity to a certain extent but we need to concentrate on ourselves. Italy will no doubt provide a physical challenge especially up front but I'm confident we can meet that challenge with our experience. Ireland are next up and they are in our Junior World Championship pool, along with France and Fiji so that will be an importance gauge for us.”
Wales Under 20 Six Nations squad: Forwards - Nicky Smith, Nicky Thomas (both Ospreys), Leon Crump, Callum Lewis, (both Blues), Benjamin Leung (Scarlets), Ethan Lewis (Blues), Elliot Dee (Dragons), Scott Otten (Swansea), James Sheekey (Blues), Shaun O'Rourke (Ospreys), Joshua Helps (Scarlets), Joe Davies (Dragons), Will Boyde (Carmarthen), Rob Dudley-Jones (Swansea), Scott Matthews, Ollie Griffiths, James Benjamin (all Dragons)
Backs - Tom Williams (Blues), Luc Jones (Dragons), Connor Lloyd (Scarlets), Luke Price (Ospreys), Ethan Davies (Dragons), Steffan Hughes (Scarlets), Garyn Smith (Blues), Harri Evans (RGC), Aled Summerhill (Blues), Joshua Adams (Scarlets), Dafydd Howells (Ospreys), Ashton Hewitt (Dragons), Steffan Evans (Scarlets), Afon Bagshaw (RGC)
Tickets for Wales' three home matches available now from wru.co.uk