The 2022 TikTok Women’s Six Nations will be the first in which Wales will be able to call upon full-time rugby players.
In a historic agreement in January, 12 players were signed up by the Welsh Rugby Union on year-long professional contracts, while a further 12 players have been handed part-time ‘retainer’ contracts.
This should go a long way towards Wales bridging the gap between them and the leading teams in the Championship and early results have been very promising.
They have been on the rise since the 2021 Championship, which proved to be a struggle as the team coached by Warren Abrahams were defeated in all three of their fixtures.
Wales were unable to register a point in the pool stage, as they were defeated 53-0 by France at Vannes before finishing on the wrong end of a 45-0 scoreline against Ireland at Cardiff Arms Park.
They were more competitive in their 5th/6th place play-off against Scotland with Lisa Neumann and Caitlin Lewis scoring their first tries of the Championship, but they couldn’t prevent a 27-20 defeat at Scotstoun.
Abrahams has since been replaced as head coach by Ioan Cunningham, who guided Wales Under-20s through the Six Nations Under-20s Championship last summer.
Although in the early days of a new era, Wales have already made strides forwards since last year’s Championship – shown by wins over Japan (23-5) and South Africa (29-19) in the autumn.
Their toughest opponents last November were Canada and hopes of them causing an upset were raised by them going in half-time 7-0 ahead after the visitors had had Olivia DeMerchant red-carded.
However, a dominant second half from the 14-player Canadians led to them running out 24-7 winners by full-time.
Wales played their first match since the announcement of the full-time contracts on March 12, and they again showed signs that they are ready to hang with the stronger teams against the USA.
The Americans ultimately won the uncapped friendly 31-23, with Wales’ tries coming from Alisha Butchers, Hannah Jones and Donna Rose, suggesting they will be entering the 2022 TikTok Women’s Six Nations in much stronger shape than before.
Wales open their 2022 TikTok Women’s Six Nations campaign against Ireland at Dublin’s RDS Arena on Saturday, March 26 and their recent improvements could mean it will be a far closer contest than last year’s fixture.
Victory would be their first in the Championship since the final round of 2019 and it would stand them in good stead ahead of their first home game, which comes against Scotland on Saturday, April 2.
Wales will then find out how much ground they have been able to make up on the TikTok Women’s Six Nations leading lights, as they face defending champions England at Kingsholm, Gloucester in Round 3 on Saturday, April 9.
France then come to Cardiff Arms Park on Friday, April 22 in what will be another tough test before Italy are the visitors on Super Saturday, which falls on April 30.
Players to watch
One of the 12 players to sign a full-time contract with the WRU is the lightning-fast Jasmine Joyce, who is capable of lighting it up from either the wing or full-back.
Joyce showed just how dangerous she can be with her performances for Great Britain at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics rugby sevens tournament, in which she scored seven tries.
The 26-year-old has continued to perform to a high level with Bristol Bears in the Allianz Premier 15s this season and is someone whose game should really benefit from the new arrangement.
Captain Siwan Lillicrap, 34, provides bundles of experience from the second row and is another to benefit from playing from playing for Bristol.
Lillicrap gave up her role as head of rugby at Swansea University to take up one of the professional WRU contracts that were on offer and is set to add to her 40 caps in the 2022 TikTok Women’s Six Nations.
At 24 years old, scrum-half Keira Bevan has already earned 38 caps, although this tally would have even higher were it not for injuries.
A leg injury ruled Bevan out of the Championship last year and Wales are grateful to welcome a player who performs with wisdom beyond her years back into the fold.
Among the young players to keep an eye out for in the Wales squad are lock Gwen Crabb, No.8 Alex Callender, centre Courtney Keight and winger Caitlin Lewis.
Wales’ 37-strong squad also features six uncapped players, with Lowri Norkett, Liliana Podpadec, Jenni Scoble, Emma Hennessey, Emma Swords and Sisilia Tuipuloutu all called up.
Siwan Lillicrap (captain, Bristol Bears), Alisha Butchers (Bristol Bears), Alex Callender (Worcester Warriors), Gwen Crabb (Glouecster-Hartpury), Cara Hope (Gloucester-Hartpury), Kat Evans (Saracens), Abbie Fleming (Exeter Chiefs), Cerys Hale (Gloucester-Hartpury), Sioned Harries (Worcester Warriors), Natalia John (Bristol Bears), Manon Johnes (Bristol Bears), Kelsey Jones (Gloucester-Hartpury), Bethan Lewis (Gloucester-Hartpury), Liliana Podpadec (Llandaff North), Carys Phillips (Worcester Warriors), Gwenllian Pyrs (Sale Sharks), Donna Rose (Saracens), Jenni Scoble (Llandaff North), Caryl Thomas (Worcester Warriors), Sisilia Tuipulotu (Gloucester-Hartpury)
Keira Bevan (Bristol Bears), Lleucu George (Gloucester-Hartpury), Emma Hennessy (Cheltenham Tigers), Hannah Jones (Gloucester-Hartpury), Jasmine Joyce (Bristol Bears), Courtney Keight (Bristol Bears), Kerin Lake (Gloucester-Hartpury), Caitlin Lewis (Exeter Chiefs), Ffion Lewis (Worcester Warriors), Lisa Neumann (Gloucester-Hartpury), Lowri Norkett (Pontyclun), Kayleigh Powell (Bristol Bears), Gemma Rowland (Wasps), Emma Swords (Harlequins), Elinor Snowsill (Bristol Bears), Niamh Terry (Exeter Chiefs), Robyn Wilkins (Gloucester-Hartpury)