Wales newcomer Niall Huggins is ready to step onto the international stage after expressing fears that a mystery injury which left him with weak bones would end his career.

Huggins joined up with the senior Wales squad for the first time this week ahead of decisive Euro 2024 qualifiers against Armenia and Turkey after what the Sunderland defender called a “horrendous” period.

The 22-year-old made just a couple of league starts in his first two seasons at Sunderland after joining from Leeds in August 2021, with the full-back becoming increasingly concerned over his football future.

“The last two years have been horrendous, awful to be honest,” said York-born Huggins, whose father was born in Bangor.

“When I first joined Sunderland, I suffered an initial stress fracture in my back and that put me out for four or five months.

“I had the same sort of issue but in different places when I was doing my rehab and it was something we struggled to get to the bottom of.

“There was never a reason for why it was happening. All the tests we did, nothing ever seemed to stand out.

“It was just that the bones were weak, which made it tough.”

Asked if he felt his career was at risk at the time, Huggins said: “Yes, 100 per cent. It got to the point where every time I was doing the rehab, the first few steps back on the grass, it was always there in the back of my mind.

“I would think: ‘Is this going to happen again?’ And you do start to worry. The years are going by on the contract and you are worrying about it.

“When I did finally start to get fit, it helped so much mentally. But it is still hard to look back on.”

Huggins said the issue was eventually resolved by “having an injection every morning for three months”, strengthening his bones and allowing him to return to training.

But the physical demand of matches took a toll on his body, with muscular issues and a knee problem ruling him out until Sunderland’s Championship play-off games in May.

It has not been until this season that Huggins has been able to show the potential that persuaded Marcelo Bielsa to hand him a Premier League debut for Leeds at Arsenal in February 2021.

“It literally feels like I’m starting my professional career,” said Huggins, who has started 11 Sunderland games this term and scored his first senior goal – a Championship goal-of-the-month contender – against Watford in October.

“This is the first year where I can really show what I can do and what level I can play at. To have the call-up to the senior team shows that even more.

“It wasn’t even at the back of my mind, but it felt amazing.

“To represent a country feels unbelievable. It means as much to the lads who were born outside Wales as those born in the country and who have lived there for a long time.

“It just shows the culture that the set-up creates for the players. You can see how amazing the fans are and how much it means to the country to make it to the Euros.

“The previous results show how much the lads want to play for the badge, including the lads born in England – and me being one of them. I’m just excited to one day hopefully put on the shirt and play for the country.”

Ben Davies insists Wales are determined to prove the doubters wrong by making Euro 2024 and reaching a fourth major tournament in five attempts.

Wales are preparing for decisive Euro 2024 ties against Armenia and Turkey knowing qualification for next summer’s finals is in their own hands.

Last month’s stunning 2-1 upset win over World Cup semi-finalists Croatia has set Rob Page’s side up for what could be another momentous week in Welsh football.

Tottenham defender Davies, stand-in skipper for the injured Aaron Ramsey on the night and again this week, gave a rousing ‘huddle’ speech after the Croatia game that was caught on camera.

Evoking the words of Dafydd Iwan’s Yma O Hyd – the 1980s folk protest song which has been adopted by the Football Association of Wales as an anthem and translates as “Still Here” – Davies declared that the Dragons never give in.

“It was just a case of showing the reason why we’re here,” Davies said of a speech which came during a campaign in which Wales have had to adapt to life without the match-winning exploits of the retired Gareth Bale.

“It was backs against the walls stuff, it was showing that people doubted us again but we’re still standing.

“We’re standing up against the challenges and here we are with two games to go still in the fight.

“We never stopped believing in this group. The mindset we’ve got is we can get a result against anyone. We’ve shown that.”

If they fail to qualify automatically – dropped points will leave them relying on other results for a top-two place – Wales are guaranteed a play-off place through their elite status in the last edition of the Nations League.

But overcoming Armenia and already-qualified Turkey might be an easier proposition than beating the likes of Norway, Poland and Ukraine in March.

Automatic qualification, however, looked improbable after June’s 4-2 defeat to Armenia in Cardiff, and the subsequent 2-0 away loss in Turkey three days later.

Davies said: “It was obviously disappointing to lose to Armenia at home in the summer.

“In these groups your home record usually has to be very good, but we’ve been here before.

“We’ve had our backs against the wall and we’ve given ourselves a chance. It’s exactly the same now.

“It’s quite clear the second game doesn’t matter if the first one doesn’t go our way.

“This week it’s full focus on Armenia. We had a tough result against them at home, it was a real wake-up call.

“They’re a good side and showed that against us, and it’s important we go there knowing we’ve got a big job to do.”

Davies, Ramsey and goalkeepers Danny Ward and Wayne Hennessey are the four survivors remaining from the squad that reached the semi-finals of Euro 2016.

Wales went 58 years before their first major tournament – the 1958 World Cup – and their second in France.

But playing in Germany next summer would see them making four tournaments out of five – three successive European Championships and the 2022 World Cup.

“Growing up it was a dream of Welsh football to be going to these major tournaments,” Davies said.

“That dream still exists and this is another huge chance we’ve got.

“We don’t want to sit on the success and say: ‘OK, we’ve been there and had a nice time’.

“Once you get a taste of it you want to do it again. That’s exactly where we are as a group this time.”

Wales qualified for Euro 2020 by winning their final two games, away to Azerbaijan and at home to Hungary, and obvious parallels exist with a far-flung trip to Eastern Europe followed by a sell-out clash at the Cardiff City Stadium.

Davies said: “Of course there are similarities from the last time we qualified (for the European Championship).

“It’s a tight group and they’re always going to come down to it (last games), whatever happens. Most of us have been in this situation before and it’s an opportunity for us to do it again.”

Warren Gatland was appointed Wales head coach on this day in 2007 as Welsh rugby looked to rebuild following their early World Cup exit.

A 38-34 defeat to Fiji 41 days earlier saw Wales knocked out at the group stage in France, with Gareth Jenkins sacked the following morning.

The Welsh Rugby Union launched a global search for his replacement and the process led them 12,000 miles away to a former hooker who had played 17 non-international matches for New Zealand but never won a Test cap.

Gatland had impressed during a three-year spell in charge of Ireland between 1998 and 2001, just missing out on the Six Nations title in his final year as England held a superior points difference.

He also led Wasps to three Premiership titles and the Heineken Cup between 2002 and 2005 before returning to his homeland to coach Waikato.

After signing an initial four-year contract with Wales, Gatland said: “I feel tremendous pride in coaching Wales and gratitude at the chance to work at the highest level.

“Wales is the sleeping giant of world rugby, I want to achieve potential.”

Gatland made an immediate impact as he led Wales to Grand Slam success in 2008, an achievement he would repeat in 2012 and 2019.

In doing so, Gatland became the first coach to win three Grand Slams in the Five or Six Nations era.

Gatland’s initial 12-year reign also saw Wales reach the semi-finals of the 2011 and 2019 Rugby World Cups.

He was reappointed to the role in December 2022 and Wales reached the quarter-finals of the World Cup the following year, where they lost 29-17 to Argentina.

Rob Page says he has cleared the air with Football Association of Wales chief Noel Mooney after their public spat last month.

Mooney put Page’s future in the spotlight four days before the Euro 2024 qualifier against Croatia by saying the manager’s position would be reviewed if Wales did not qualify for Euro 2024 automatically.

Subsequent media reports suggested Mooney had wanted fellow Irishman Roy Keane, the former Sunderland and Ipswich manager and TV pundit, to replace Page following June defeats to Armenia and Turkey.

Page is just over 12 months into a four-year contract and promised to “ignore the noise” during the build-up to a game that Wales eventually won 2-1 to move into the second automatic qualifying place in Group D.

Captain Ben Davies described Mooney’s comments as “not helpful”, and Page said the issue has since been addressed at a meeting between himself, the chief executive and FAW president Steve Williams.

“It was a conversation all three of us needed,” Page said when announcing his squad on Wednesday for this month’s final Euro 2024 qualifiers against Armenia and Turkey.

“I’m not going to go into details of what was said. It needed to be done and only positives will come from it.

“I’m due to meet him (Mooney) after the press conference and we’ll have a coffee and a chat.

“Things were said and that was it. We all move forward in the same direction. Full focus is now on the football.

“It was frustrating, unnecessary. But I don’t want to spend any more time thinking about it. We’re all on the same page.

“We all know what we’ve got to do. It would be disrespectful from me now to the players to keep going on about it.”

Tottenham forward Brennan Johnson returns to a 23-man squad after missing the win over Croatia with a hamstring injury.

Page maintains stand-in skipper Davies will be fit for both qualifiers, despite the defender missing Spurs’ 4-1 Premier League defeat against Chelsea on Monday and also being in danger of sitting out his club’s weekend game at Wolves.

Sunderland defender Niall Huggins has won his first senior call-up and Portsmouth midfielder Joe Morrell returns after a two-match suspension.

But Aaron Ramsey is again ruled out with the knee injury he sustained in September, and Page says the Cardiff midfielder has suffered a “setback” in his recovery.

He said: “It’s disappointing, I found out on Friday last week. As we all know Aaron was pushing and pushing to be part of this camp.

“Unfortunately it’s come a little too soon for him. He’s had a setback. He got up to about 90 per cent. If you’d seen him on the grass, straight lines, everything was fine.

“But there was something stopping him from going to that last step. So it’s not great for us, but it gives others an opportunity.

“He’ll be a part of it (the squad). I had that conversation with him last camp. He knew he wasn’t going to play any minutes in regards to the changing room, but to have Aaron around the lads is definitely beneficial.”

Wales can avoid the play-offs in March by beating Armenia in Yerevan on November 18 and Turkey in Cardiff three days later.

Dropped points in either game will leave them relying on other results to join already-qualified Turkey at next summer’s European Championship in Germany.

“June was a bump in the road,” Page said of damaging defeats to Armenia and Turkey in the space of four days.

“We didn’t like it. We didn’t appreciate it. We didn’t like what we saw, but we put it right in September (by beating Latvia) – and some.

“We built on that in October and capped it off with arguably one of the best performances that I’ve seen.

“We have to build on that. It will count for nothing if we don’t follow it up.”

Wales fly-half Sam Costelow is expected to be sidelined until January after suffering shoulder and hamstring injuries.

Scarlets playmaker Costelow was hurt during Wales’ 49-26 victory over the Barbarians on Saturday and went off at half-time.

He is a clear favourite to succeed Dan Biggar, who retired from Test rugby after the World Cup, in Wales’ number 10 shirt.

Wales kick off their Six Nations campaign against Scotland in Cardiff on February 3.

“We are not expecting him in the short term,” Scarlets head coach Dwayne Peel told reporters ahead of Saturday’s United Rugby Championship clash against South African side the Lions.

“It will be beyond Christmas, beyond the new year before we see him. I haven’t an exact date. We are still waiting on the final prognosis and some specialist opinion, really, on that.

“It is a disappointing one for us because he is going to be out for the large part of the first half of the season.

“There is loads more to come from him, and this is obviously a setback in his career at the minute to have this injury.”

Costelow impressed for Wales at the World Cup in France, starting the pool game against Georgia when Gareth Anscombe was a late withdrawal.

And he is the latest member of that squad to be sidelined, with Exeter forward Christ Tshiunza suffering a broken foot on his return to domestic action and number eight Taulupe Faletau continuing his recovery from a broken arm sustained in the Georgia match.

Wales, meanwhile, are without the Six Nations services of Anscombe and full-back Liam Williams, who will play domestic rugby in Japan next year.

Warren Gatland has underlined the importance of patience as he nurtures a new generation of Wales international players.

Welsh rugby bid farewell to three of its biggest names – Alun Wyn Jones, Justin Tipuric and Leigh Halfpenny – in a tribute game that saw Wales beat Principality Stadium opponents the Barbarians 49-26.

Fly-half Dan Biggar stepped down after the Rugby World Cup, meaning that Wales boss Gatland has lost more than 500 caps-worth of experience this year, with scrum-half Rhys Webb also exiting international rugby.

Influential backs Liam Williams and Gareth Anscombe, meanwhile, will be unavailable for the Six Nations this season as they embark on new club careers in Japan.

But fresh faces have already emerged – players like captain Jac Morgan, Sam Costelow, Dewi Lake, Dafydd Jenkins and Christ Tshiunza, who all have a World Cup in the locker.

And there are others who did not make Gatland’s squad cut for France who could be banging on his door sooner rather than later.

“We are pretty excited about some of the youngsters coming through,” Gatland said.

“You have got to be patient with them, you have got to go through a little bit of pain.

“Probably some of the symmetry between the (Welsh) regions and us hasn’t been the same.

“Unfortunately, we have probably used the national team almost as a pathway (in) that we have developed those players through playing international rugby almost out of necessity because we’ve had a weakness in some positions.

“Then, because they end up playing international rugby and doing well, they then go back and they start for their regions. We have sometimes got that wrong.

“It is just making sure we work together as the regions and the national team in terms of where we have got holes and developing players.

“I have long been an advocate of foreign players. I think they are good for the game, especially here in Wales.

“But I’ve always said we need to get world-class foreign players, and if we need to pay a lot of money for them then we should do that.

“Unfortunately, what we’ve tended to do is get middle-of-the-road journeymen who are 27 or 28, or even older, who have tended to stop the development of some of the youngsters. For the regions and for us, we need to get that right.

“We know the financial situation. We all go through some pain as a national set-up, but now is the right time to do that and then think, what could the picture look like in a couple of years?”

A year that started with Wales being riddled by off-field issues that unquestionably contributed to a dismal Six Nations campaign, ended through five wins out of six and a fourth successive World Cup quarter-final appearance.

The next World Cup cycle, culminating in Australia 2027, is now under way, and centre George North will be part of that conversation moving forward.

North, who has played in four World Cups, will be 35 if he makes the squad for Down Under, but he has already indicated that he has no current plans to follow some of his former team-mates into Test retirement.

Gatland added: “He and I have had a good chat and he wants to continue being available at the moment.

“He has been playing for a long time – since he was 18 – but he does have that experience and leadership, and he brings a voice to us.

“He is probably more important for us in the short-term, and then it is whether he makes that decision on whether he can keep going on through another cycle.

“Next World Cup, he will be 35. Whether he can get that far or not, if he is going to try and do that I am comfortable with that. It is just making sure we keep talking.”

George North says he is not contemplating following the likes of fellow Wales stars Leigh Halfpenny and Dan Biggar into international retirement.

Halfpenny, Alun Wyn Jones and Justin Tipuric are the centre of attention when Wales face Principality Stadium opponents the Barbarians on Saturday.

Jones, who made a world record 158 Test match appearances for Wales, captains a Barbarians team that features 93 times-capped flanker Tipuric among his colleagues.

And full-back Halfpenny, with 101 caps under his belt, is set for a final Wales outing before moving to the southern hemisphere, where he is expected to join Super Rugby giants the Crusaders.

Fly-half Biggar, meanwhile, left the international stage following Wales’ World Cup campaign in France and continues to play for Top 14 club Toulon.

At 31, centre North can reflect on a Wales career that has yielded 118 caps and 47 tries, but his appetite for more remains firmly intact.

“I felt like I was really happy with my performance in the World Cup,” said North, who will partner Johnny Williams in Wales’ midfield this weekend.

“(I am) still competing, so for me, I am very much still wanting to play and compete for that jersey. It is still a huge part of me and a big driver for me.

“If the boss (Wales head coach Warren Gatland) keeps picking me, I will keep doing the best I can.

“It is obviously a sad day to be losing them. They are big characters and big players for us and have delivered on numerous occasions in big games that people still talk about now.

“But that is the evolution of rugby and you have got to keep up with the curve.

“I think we saw in the World Cup a number of younger players putting their hands up and taking a step forward. It is time for these boys to get that exposure and get into Test match rugby.”

North, meanwhile, has paid glowing tributes to Jones, Tipuric and Halfpenny as he prepares to share a big-match stage with them for a final time.

“Al is a guy I’ve known for many years and played alongside,” he added.

“He is an absolute Trojan horse, what he has given to Welsh rugby over the, what is it, 25-30 years he has been playing! For Al to have his last game at home, playing against Wales, is special for him.

“I think Justin is probably one of the best players I’ve played with, his understanding of the game, how best to apply himself and one of the fittest players.

“He could play anywhere. Some people say he could play from full-back to back-row and I am sure he could do a better job than most of us.

“Leigh is another awesome servant of Welsh rugby, a close friend of mine and a brother in arms.

“He literally leaves no stone unturned and he goes out of his way to help anyone and everyone. For Leigh to finish at home is special for him and his family and he has got an exciting next step as well.”

Leigh Halfpenny expects a “pretty special” Wales send-off on Saturday while hoping to continue playing for another two seasons.

Halfpenny announced his decision to retire from international duty following Wales’ exit from the recent Rugby World Cup and will make his final appearance in the red jersey against the Barbarians in Cardiff.

But the 34-year-old is set to prolong his career, with Japan considered to be the most likely destination ahead of an official announcement next week.

“It’s all done,” Halfpenny said ahead of his Millennium Stadium farewell.

“I’ve got a contract for another season and then we’ll see what happens after that. I’m looking for that to be announced next week.”

Halfpenny won 101 caps for Wales – the Barbarians game, which is being staged to pay tribute to the country’s record cap holder Alun Wyn Jones, is uncapped – and scored 801 points after making his debut at the age of 19 against South Africa in November 2008.

He made four Test appearances for the Lions across the 2013 and 2017 tours, although he was also selected in 2009 before injury cut short his involvement.

Halfpenny was named player of the series in 2013, helping the Lions to a 2-1 series victory in Australia.

He said: “I’m just grateful for the opportunities I’ve had to wear the jersey over the last 15 years.

“It’s been an absolute privilege to put on the Welsh shirt and I’m really excited for Saturday.

“I’ve got a few friends and family coming along, and I’m looking forward to going out one last time.

“To run out alongside guys like Alun and Justin Tipuric, albeit they’ll be on the opposite side, and share the field with those two greats of the game and Welsh legends again will be pretty special.”

Halfpenny is third on the all-time list of men’s points scorers for Wales, behind Neil Jenkins (1,049) and Stephen Jones (917).

He says he grew up in the Swansea suburb of Gorseinon determined to emulate outside-half Jenkins, hero of the Lions’ 1997 series victory in South Africa.

Halfpenny said: “Jenks was an idol for me, watching him play and kick for Wales. He made me want to be like him kicking for Wales.

“I just went down the field and put the practice in. That was my dream, to play and kick for Wales.

“I’ve got to be honest, I was pretty star-struck when I met up with him at St Helen’s (the home ground of Swansea RFC) at the age of 16, and he’s been incredible for me.

“I’ve learned so much from him; not just goal-kicking but the work you need to put in. He’s supported me throughout and been huge in what I’ve been able to achieve.”

Halfpenny also wants to follow Jenkins into coaching, adding: “It’s something that I would like to do once I hang up the boots.

“I will be having a chat with him and picking up any tips I can. He’s one of the best in the world and to learn from him has been pretty special.”

Warren Gatland has backed Andy Farrell to be the next British and Irish Lions head coach after ruling himself out of the running for the 2025 tour of Australia.

New Zealander Gatland, who late last year returned for a second spell as Wales boss, has overseen the last three Lions tours.

Farrell was on Sunday named World Rugby coach of the year after leading Ireland to a Guinness Six Nations Grand Slam amid a 17-match winning run.

“A few weeks ago, I was asked by Nigel Walker, Wales’ director of rugby, if I was interested in putting my name forward to be head coach for the next tour in Australia in 2025,” Gatland wrote in his column for the Telegraph.

“It did not take long to get back to him.

“I told him I was not going to put my name forward. I told Nigel that I would have no problem if any of my support staff were to be asked to be involved as I would see it as a great experience for them.

“But I think it is the opportunity now for someone else to be head coach and Andy Farrell would have my backing for the job.

“You cannot deny what Ireland have achieved as a nation over the last few years. There is no doubt that Andy has done a fantastic job.”

Gatland led the Lions to a 2-1 win in Australia in 2013, a drawn series in New Zealand in 2017 and a 2-1 defeat in South Africa in 2021.

Farrell was part of the 60-year-old’s coaching staff for the first two of those three tours.

The 48-year-old Englishman’s stock has risen significantly over the past couple of years, albeit Ireland suffered a quarter-final exit at the Rugby World Cup in France following a 28-24 defeat to runners-up New Zealand.

Gatland, who also assisted Sir Ian McGeechan on the 2009 Lions tour of South Africa, offered to support his successor in an advisory capacity.

“If the next head coach wants to tap into my experiences from the last four tours, then I would still love to be involved in some way by passing on the knowledge and experience I have gained in trying to create harmony within a group of players from different backgrounds,” he continued.

“For the Lions, it is the least I can do.”

Wales reached the Rugby World Cup knockout phase for a fourth successive tournament before bowing out against quarter-final opponents Argentina.

And that represented a solid achievement given Wales’ struggles earlier in the year when poor form was matched by off-field issues such as financial and contractual uncertainty that almost led to a players’ strike.

Here, the PA news agency looks back on Wales’ World Cup campaign.


A Pool C opener against unpredictable Fiji in Bordeaux meant Wales’ hopes of progressing from their group faced an immediate threat, but they overcame the challenge – just. Wales led by 18 points thanks to tries from Josh Adams, George North, Louis Rees-Zammit and Elliot Dee, but Fiji hit back spectacularly through two tries before star back Semi Radradra dropped the ball as Wales’ try-line beckoned during the dying seconds.

A 32-26 victory was followed by them beating Portugal 28-8 in Nice, before Wales romped to a record 40-6 win against Eddie Jones’ hapless Australian team and Georgia were seen off 43-19 as Warren Gatland’s men secured top spot in the pool and collected 19 points from a possible 20.

They were favourites to beat Argentina at Marseille’s Stade Velodrome and reach the semi-finals, but Wales unravelled after building a 10-point advantage, losing 29-17 in what they will view as a huge missed opportunity.


Wales head coach Gatland saw the World Cup build-up begin by losing almost 300 caps’ worth of experience as Alun Wyn Jones, Justin Tipuric and Rhys Webb all retired from Test rugby in quick succession. An extended training squad went through punishing camps in Switzerland and Turkey before Gatland’s final 33-strong squad for France featured 16 players at their first World Cup.

The entire group had competitive minutes, and Wales’ three biggest games – Fiji, Australia and Argentina – saw just one enforced change of personnel after number eight Taulupe Faletau broke his arm during the Georgia win. There were also impressive moments from relative newcomers like Rio Dyer, Sam Costelow, Dafydd Jenkins and Christ Tshiunza as Gatland got his selection spot-on.

Star performers

A number of players stood out for Wales as they made impressive progress through their group. Wing Rees-Zammit was the only player to start all four pool games and the quarter-final, and he scored five tries, including a hat-trick against Georgia.

Squad co-captain Jac Morgan – aged just 23 – evoked memories of a 22-year-old Sam Warburton skippering Wales in the 2011 World Cup through inspired leadership and superb performances, while North’s fourth World Cup – a Welsh record – was highlighted by impressively assured displays in midfield.

Lock Will Rowlands was another whose all-round quality helped keep his side on the front foot, and Faletau looked back to his world-class best before injury struck. Wales’ World Cup campaign was very much a collective effort.

The future

Fly-half talisman Dan Biggar bowed out of international rugby following Wales’ loss to Argentina, but his enthusiasm for the future led to him stating: “A strong core of young players will know that they have got the talent to rub shoulders with the best of the best. I really think the future is bright for Welsh rugby”.

Wales’ quarter-final demise will mean frustration in the short term, but optimism should soon take over. Biggar has left the international arena, while Japan-bound backs Liam Williams and Gareth Anscombe will not feature in the Six Nations later this season, but strong foundations have been laid, accompanied by a sprinkling of star-dust in players such as Rees-Zammit, Dyer, Costelow and Morgan.

And with Gatland at the helm, Wales’ next four-year World Cup cycle could prove one to savour.

Warren Gatland is to remain as Wales head coach and lead them to the 2027 World Cup.

Gatland placed his future in the hands of the Welsh Rugby Union following his side’s World Cup quarter-final defeat to Argentina on Saturday.

The 60-year-old New Zealander, pointing to a break-up clause in his contract, said: “If the union want to get rid of me, that’s up to them.”

But asked at a press conference on Wednesday whether he will stay through to the next World Cup in Australia, Gatland said: “Absolutely. That’s the plan.

“I had a joke with Nigel (Walker, interim WRU chief executive) before and said ‘You can’t get rid of me’.

“I think my contract said if we didn’t get out of the pool they had a clause that said they could get rid of me. I said: ‘If you do want to pay me off that’s up to you’. But I’m excited what we can do as a group.”

Gatland was joined at the press conference by Walker, the former Wales wing who has stood in as WRU interim CEO since the end of January and will become the executive director of rugby at the start of next year.

Walker said: “To be successful in international sport you have to have good coaches and good players.

“To be a good coach you need experience, miles on the clock, understand your craft, get your message across to players, and players have to trust you.

“You’ve seen the growth in the squad in a relatively small period of time and, like Warren, I’m really excited what the next four years can bring.

“We’ve got something to build on and we know we can grow the standard of the squad to an even greater level we saw over the last four or five weeks.”

Wales were written off by many before the World Cup after a difficult 12 months, which saw them suffer an embarrassing defeat to Georgia and head coach Wayne Pivac sacked in December.

Gatland, who coached Wales between 2007 and 2019, returned to oversee a Six Nations campaign that produced only one victory after the players had threatened to take strike action over contractual issues.

Ken Owens, captain in that campaign, described Wales as the “laughing stock” of world rugby, but Gatland believes Wales will move forward after topping their World Cup pool with wins over Australia, Fiji, Georgia and Portugal.

“We’ve got an opportunity to bring some youngsters in and build on the cycle to 2027 with players having 50, 60, 70 caps behind them,” said Gatland, who became the first coach in France to lead a team to four World Cup quarter-finals.

“There’s also an opportunity for us to build some closer relationships with the regions and some of the changes with coaches and personnel there, and that hasn’t always been the case in the past.

“Often those relationships have been quite fractured because of things that were going on between the regions and the unions, and we got dragged into it.”

Wales play the Barbarians in Cardiff on November 4 as a tribute to their former captain Alun Wyn Jones, who retired from international rugby in May.

Players based in France and England will not be selected as the game falls outside the international window.

Gatland confirmed five players – Dan Biggar, Gareth Davies, Josh Adams, Liam Williams and Louis Rees-Zammit – are injured and would have missed out on a World Cup semi-final against New Zealand this Friday had they beaten Argentina.

Biggar has retired from international rugby and played his last game for Wales, while Taulupe Faletau’s future will become clearer next year.

The 32-year-old British and Irish Lions number eight broke his arm against Georgia and missed the Argentina defeat.

Gatland said: “I spoke to Taulupe before he left France and said ‘get that arm fixed’. We’ll sit down then and talk about what he wants to do over the next few years in terms of playing.”

Eddie Jones has committed his future to coaching Australia and again denied speculation linking him with a return to Japan.

Australia crashed out of the Rugby World Cup at the group stage for the first time after defeats to Fiji and Wales, but the former England coach insists he has no plans to move.

“I’m staying mate,” he told reporters in Australia. “I’ve always been committed to Australian rugby, I want to leave it in a better place, and that’s still the job.

“It’s not absolutely my decision. We play in a game where the coach doesn’t decide how long they stay.

“We’ve got a review going forward and we’ll see what happens at the end of the review.”

Jones, who took over from Dave Rennie in January a month after being sacked by England, said he had “no idea” where the story came from about him speaking to Japan about a coaching role.

“I haven’t spoken to anyone, mate,” he said.

Rugby Australia has announced an independent review into the World Cup performance, but Jones believes his decision to select a young team will pay dividends when Australia hosts the next World Cup in 2027.

“I went to the World Cup, came in (with) a short period of time, had to make a decision on the team, made a decision we needed to go with youth,” he said.

“And whilst, the results at the World Cup weren’t the results we wanted, I think I’ve left the Australian team in a great position to go on to 2027.

“We had the courage to go with a younger squad and I think this squad is going to stand Australia in good stead. We have the nucleus of a really good team.”

He continued: “We just weren’t good enough, mate. You’ve just got to watch the quarter-finals on the weekend.

“We’re not at that level and we can’t pretend to be at that level, but can we be at that level by 2027? Yes we can.”

Wales hero Harry Wilson has backed manager Rob Page and says he has the full support of his players while taking an apparent swipe at the Association’s chief executive Noel Mooney.

Page’s position came under the spotlight before Wales’ stunning 2-1 home win over Croatia in Euro 2024 qualifying on Sunday.

Mooney revealed that Page’s future will be reviewed next month should Wales fail in their bid to qualify automatically for next summer’s tournament.

Captain Ben Davies said on the eve of the Croatia game that Mooney’s comments were “not helpful”, a point picked up on by Wilson after the Fulham forward had scored twice to lift Wales into the second automatic qualifying spot in Group D.

“We’re 100 per cent behind the manager,” Wilson told S4C after Wales’ win over the world’s sixth-ranked team.

“We know there’s been a lot of noise from the outside and some comments that weren’t helpful for us in our preparation from people we didn’t really expect the comments to come from to be honest.”

Wilson marked his 50th Wales appearance with a first brace for his country, a deft chip over Croatia goalkeeper Dominik Livakovic and a glancing header from Daniel James’ cross taking his goal tally to eight.

It came 10 years to the day since Wilson made his debut against Belgium to become Wales’ youngest-ever player at the age of 16 years and 207 days.

Wilson said: “It was a big night for me personally, representing my country 50 times is something I couldn’t have dreamed of. I’m super proud of that.

“But it wasn’t about me, it was about the team and putting on the performance we all wanted.”

Wales’ victory over the 2022 World Cup semi-finalists puts automatic qualification for the European Championship in their own hands going into the final two group games.

They meet Armenia in Yerevan on November 18 before hosting group leaders Turkey in Cardiff three days later.

Turkey’s 4-0 win over Latvia on Sunday secured qualification for next summer’s showpiece in Germany.

Wales will join them by winning their final two games, even if Croatia do likewise against Latvia and Armenia next month.

Teams are ranked according to their head-to-head performance if level on points.

Wales drew 1-1 away to Croatia in March and took four points from them – and would actually top the group by winning their final two games.

Wilson said: “We watched their game on Thursday night (Croatia lost 1-0 at home to Turkey) and the result went against us. So we knew we had to produce something special and thankfully we’ve done that.”

Rob Page welcomed Wales putting automatic qualification for Euro 2024 in their own hands after admitting he had been “fighting fires” before the stunning 2-1 victory over Croatia.

Harry Wilson, winning his 50th cap, scored twice as Wales climbed above the 2022 World Cup semi-finalists in to second place in Group D.

The two teams are tied on 10 points, six behind group leaders Turkey who secured qualification by beating Latvia 4-0 on Sunday. Wales are second by virtue of having a better head-to-head record against Croatia after also drawing 1-1 with them in Split in March.

Wales’ win over Croatia, ranked sixth in the world and 27 places above the Dragons, came after pre-match reports that manager Page’s job could be in jeopardy.

Football Association of Wales chief executive Noel Mooney had said earlier in the week that a “serious review” would take place on Page’s position following the final group games against Armenia and Turkey next month. Page is currently just over 12 months into a four-year deal.

Page said: “I would say it’s the best performance (of his three-year reign), I am immensely proud.

“There was unnecessary noise coming into it, with me fighting fires. I didn’t need any player to speak, I see the players want to play for me.

“I had a text from the chief executive today, before that, not for five weeks.

“I just want to concentrate on the football, we are two games away from qualifying for another major tournament, a fourth in five.

“We believe we can do it. We need to do the same (in November) as we did in this camp.”

Wales had never beaten Croatia in seven previous attempts, drawing three and losing four.

But Wales had the better first-half chances – Dominik Livakovic denying Wilson and Neco Williams with smart saves – and took control after the break.

Wilson raced on to David Brooks’ pass to score with a splendid chip and then converted Daniel James’ cross with a glancing header.

Mario Pasalic ensured home anxiety 15 minutes from time with a close-range header, but Wales held on for a famous victory.

Page said: “In all aspects, how we defended against an excellent team with one of the best midfields in the world was outstanding.

“We are in a transition period where we’ve lost one of the best players in the world (Gareth Bale). We are introducing young players to strengthen us and improve us.

“Seven of our 11 are not starting for their club. Chris Mepham’s last game was against Latvia. Kieffer Moore isn’t playing for his club.

“But when they turn up for Wales they produce a performance like that. I am really proud of them as a group.

“The players are an incredible bunch and it’s in our hands now.

“I understand not everyone is going to be a fan of mine, but when you have a group of players playing like that for you, it makes you immensely proud.”

Croatia head coach Zlatko Dalic believes the 2022 World Cup semi-finalists face a tough task to qualify automatically after successive defeats to Turkey and Wales.

Dalic said: “It is going to be difficult. We understand it is not all in our hands any more. We have to believe that we are going to be able to turn this around.

“We just played both games without energy, we didn’t play well, we didn’t create any chances. Our opponent was more aggressive, tougher than us and we deserved to lose.”

Harry Wilson celebrated his 50th cap with a brilliant double as Wales boosted their Euro 2024 automatic qualification hopes with a 2-1 win over Croatia in Cardiff.

Wilson rewarded an excellent home performance with two clinical second-half strikes, enough to stave off a late Croatia rally that saw Mario Pasalic convert 15 minutes from time.

Wales came into the contest knowing victories in their final three group games were probably necessary to secure a top-two place and avoid the play-offs in March.

Rob Page’s side still have to work to do in November – away to Armenia and at home to group leaders Turkey – but upsetting the 2022 World Cup semi-finalists in such fashion offers great encouragement.

This win takes Wales into second place above Croatia by virtue of them having done better in their head-to-head ties, the Dragons having drawn their opening game of the campaign 1-1 in Split in March.

The result will ease the pressure on manager Rob Page, who awoke to newspaper headlines on Saturday morning linking Roy Keane to his job.

Page vowed he would shut out all external noise at his pre-match press conference in which he became visibly emotional, and that chatter will now surely dim after this result.

Victory in Latvia last month had boosted Wales, but Aaron Ramsey and Brennan Johnson had picked up injuries and were replaced by David Brooks, a scoring substitute in Riga, and Kieffer Moore.

Ben Davies took over the captaincy in Ramsey’s absence as Wilson won his landmark cap, exactly a decade on from becoming Wales’ youngest-ever player at the age of 16 years and 207 days.

History was against Wales with no wins in seven games against Croatia and the visitors were smarting from Thursday’s 1-0 loss to Turkey – their first-ever home defeat in European Championship qualification.

Croatia made three changes from that shock defeat but their midfield triumvirate of Luka Modric, Mateo Kovacic and Marcelo Brozovic – the heartbeat of this ‘Golden Generation’ – remained in tact.

Wales started on the front foot but the pattern of the game soon developed with Croatia dominating possession and the hosts seeking to spring swift counter-attacks.

Wilson almost profited from one such raid after Brooks had tricked Josko Gvardiol in the build-up. The ball just run away from Wilson, who could not connect with enough power and Domagoj Vida blocked.

A period of Croatia keep-ball ended with Josip Juranovic crossing and Petar Musa heading over, but it was a rare moment of concern for Wales who were gaining in confidence.

Ethan Ampadu picked out Brooks after 21 minutes and his feather-like touch and pass freed Wilson through the middle.

Wilson was brought down in full flow by Vida, with the close attendance of Gvardiol preventing the yellow card from turning to red.

Croatia goalkeeper Dominik Livakovic tipped away Wilson’s resulting free-kick and was also equal to Neco Williams’ curling effort after the wing-back had cut inside on his right foot,

Gvardiol’s intervention was also needed to deny Connor Roberts after Wilson’s clever back-heel had created space.

Croatia boss Zlatko Dalic made three changes at half-time, a sign that he was unimpressed with his side’s first-half performance.

But Wales struck within two minutes of the restart as the visitors failed to cope with Danny Ward’s punt forward.

The ball came off a Croatia player under pressure from Moore and Brooks volleyed the ball on.

Wilson took it in his stride and outpaced Vida to chip the ball over the stranded Livakovic for his seventh Wales goal.

The lead was doubled after 60 minutes as Daniel James, having replaced Brooks three minutes earlier, swung over a cross that Wilson glanced beyond Livakovic into the corner of the net.

Croatia rose from their slumber with Ward saving from substitute Dion Drena Beljo, the ball turned inches around the post.

Modric’s resulting corner glanced off the head of Moore for Pasalic to pounce from close range, but Wales held on for a famous victory against the world’s sixth-ranked team.

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