Debut tries, Sonny Bill and learning from Liam: The Making of Wales’s Cameron Winnett

Cameron Winnett 10/2/2023
Few things can match a debut try, but to do it after just five minutes against the English champions in a major European tie is a whole other level.

Few things can match a debut try, but to do it after just five minutes against the English champions in a major European tie is a whole other level.

Cameron Winnett was just 18 when he crossed the whitewash to give Cardiff a surprise lead against Harlequins. The occasion? A Heineken Champions Cup tie in December 2021. The Welsh side were in the mood to cause an upset – even if they had 42 players missing through quarantine and injury.

In the end, it didn’t go their way. A cobbled-together team of youngsters fought valiantly to keep it at 17-17 near the hour mark, but Harlequins’ strength in depth came through and saw the London outfit win 43-17. All the same, the day retains a special place in Winnett’s memory and has helped him push on to become one of the stars of the 2023 Under-20s Six Nations.

“It was probably one of the best days of my life to be honest, making my debut in the Champions Cup, which was mad,” he says.

“Playing a team like Harlequins filled with players like Marcus Smith, (Alex) Dombrandt and (Tom) Marchant. It was just a day I’ll never forget and an important one for me and my family. And that try, I was just speechless. I didn’t celebrate. I was just in shock so it was really good.

“I had that opportunity because the boys were out there in South Africa and I just took it.”

Indeed he did. Since then, the No.15 has had an impressive rise. That season, he established himself for Cardiff and Wales’ Under-20s. Now he’s sporting the national jersey in the Under 20s Six Nations and hoping to follow in the footsteps of his idols.

“Liam Williams and [Leigh] Halfpenny, growing up going to the Wales matches, they’re the players I wanted to be like. From more recently, I really like Wille Le Roux. I really like how he plays and how much freedom he has. He does everything basically.”

At Cardiff, he now plays alongside Williams, deepening his craft as a full-back, though he insists he’s versatile. “I’m learning off the likes of Liam now. It’s definitely surreal and I’m just taking everything I can, learning off him when I can.

“I could play on the wing. I could play 10. I used to play 13, but obviously full-back is my main position.

“It’s been a hell of an experience over the last two years, going so far through that – playing out in Harlequins, out in the Summer Series in Italy. I’m really enjoying it.”

Down the line, he’ll be eyeing up the coveted No.15 role for the senior Wales team. “It sounds a bit mad but obviously I’m still young and I still need a lot more game time at this level. Hopefully I can get it, but I’m still learning.”

At the time of writing, Wales U20s need to get their Six Nations campaign back on track – and fast. Defeats at the hands of Ireland and Scotland, the latter an agonising 18-17 loss to a late penalty kick, have left Wales propping up the table.

Winnett is honest in reflecting on these disappointments. “I think we’ve been there, it’s just our discipline and definitely in the last 20 minutes we’ve let ourselves down. We’ve let other teams score points and our discipline has helped that.”

But there are plenty of positives to draw. In the Ireland game, some expert offloads from Louie Hennessey and Winnett set up Dan Edwards in acres of space, who picked out Llien Morgan for the try. Was that instinct or crafted on the training ground?

“A bit of both I think. We were doing a lot of it with Byron (Hayward), obviously offloading, and I just saw Dan (Edwards) in my peripheral and I just went with it.

The sequence even attracted attention from none other than Sonny Bill Williams, who called it ‘poetry in motion’ on Twitter. “It was unbelievable,” says Winnett. “And especially for Louie (Hennessey) as well because he looks up to him.”

Despite his promising future, the 20-year-old remains humble in his replies. “I’m just taking every moment as it comes.”