Cardiff Blues back row Alex Mann has all the credentials to thrive as Wales under 20 captain, according to academy manager Gruff Rees.
The former Aberdare RFC and Coleg y Cymoedd forward, who is part of the Cardiff Blues academy system, is in his first year of under-20 international rugby and appointed skipper by new head coach, Ioan Cunningham.
After securing an opening day win over Italy at Cardiff Arms Park, Wales suffered defeat to Ireland last Friday and now prepare to face France on Thursday.
Rees believes the overall experience will benefit Mann as he looks to make the step up into senior rugby, and is confident that he possesses the attributes and characteristics to be a captain that leads by example.
“Alex Mann being captain is a fantastic thing for him, but is also part of his learning and growth that will help him over the next couple of years, as he makes the transition to becoming a senior player,” said the former Ospreys and Canada coach.
“We collaborate closely with the WRU’s national age grade coaches and we’ve discussed where Alex does impress behind the scenes. He’s cool, calm and measured, whereas in some developmental environments there can be a lot of white noise.
“Those that shout loudest sometimes catch people’s first impressions. But as you spend time with Alex you see that he’s not only got a lot of calmness but also diligence and thoroughness about him.
“He’s getting across the detail that he needs in order to flourish and also understands how to connect the dots for the team performance and getting the best out of the people around him.
“He’s a great captaincy choice by Ioan. He’s been part of our leadership group since he came into the academy and we looked at his work with Coleg y Cymoedd.
“My role at Cardiff isn’t based solely on technicality and tactics, but also about the off-field stuff. We push, question and challenge people, look and study rugby and what makes top quality rugby players
“We’ve seen that it’s a role that nurtures players and with the under-20s it’s about making sure they don’t get carried away with the whole process.
“Alex will be the last to do that because he’s so level-headed and grounded. He’ll move on pretty quickly.
“Those type of characteristics will be important this week in particular. It will be a big test for the group as they look to bounce back from a disappointing result against Ireland.
“But Alex is the type of character you need in weeks like this. When you see coaches talking about controlling emotions, which is crucial on both sides of the scale, Alex is the type of person who can bring that calmness and composure into the group.
“After the summer, we’ll look at how we can get him a proper pre season block because it’s still a bit of an abnormal time in terms of coming out of the after-effects of the pandemic.
“Physically we still need to ensure he’s got more to do if he’s to flourish in senior rugby. But as he’s doing that it will be complemented by developing his leadership, his set-piece prowess and looking at integrating him into Cardiff Rugby.
“That’s not limited to the senior squad but also to the Premiership and where his entry point will be.”
Mann is part of a highly competitive back row unit at the Arms Park, and while he awaits his senior competitive debut, he has seen fellow youngsters such as Gwilym Bradley, Mason Grady, Ellis Bevan, Immanuel Feyi-Waboso and Theo Bevacqua making their bow for the club over the past season.
The back row also featured and made an impression as a replacement in the friendly win over Ospreys, which saw the long awaited return of fellow flanker Ellis Jenkins.
Being in-and-around the senior squad has seen Mann spending time with experienced professionals such as Jenkins and Olly Robinson, who are always open to sharing their experiences and advice.
Rees believes the open environment at the club is highly beneficial to youngsters like Mann as they look to adapt to senior rugby.
Rees added: “There are senior boys there who haven’t always found it easy. They know the slings and arrows that go with the professional game.
“They can offer experience and advice around managing game day, managing the people around you, managing referees but to be fair to Alex, he’s really open.
“I know a lot of people his age tend to close off or just have their own section of peers and family who they trust, which is fine. But Alex can see the bigger picture in terms of the opportunities of the world he’s in.
“Even last week, the day before the Italy game, we had a good conversation and there were a couple of things he wasn’t 100 per cent sure on. A lot of people would hide that away and hope for the best, but in his mind he wants to work things out and take council from the right people around him.
“Doing that around the Cardiff environment can be really powerful because there are boys in there who can give you some amazing advice and tools to your game.”
Rees is not alone in his praise of captain Mann as Wales under-20 forwards coach, T Rhys Thomas, also praised his characteristics as a leader.
The former Wales hooker, who is also part of the backroom staff at Cardiff, added: “Alex leads from the front and has another year at this level as well.
“He can play all across the back row and is very popular with the boys around him and the staff.
“He leads by example. He doesn’t say a great deal, but if he does speak then everyone will listen, that’s for sure.”
Mann is joined in the Wales under-20 squad by seven of his Cardiff team-mates, while the likes of Christ Tshiunza (Exeter Chiefs) and Garyn Phillips (Ospreys) have also represented the club at age grade level.
With a large contingent also involved with Wayne Pivac’s senior squad, Rees is proud to see a recognition for the success of the pathway in developing players for various levels of the international game.
The academy manager added: “Selection for national sides at all levels is often used as a barometer of where you are in terms of quality of players.
“In regards to the under-20 squad, everyone casts an eye on who are the next guys that can make the step up.
“But for us there is an element of both quality and quantity in terms of the pathway and keeping people engaged throughout the process.
“Someone like Ioan Evans has been with us heavily around under-16 and under-18 levels, while also working closely with Coleg y Cymoedd.
“He’s had some injury issues at times, but we’ve always worked closely and before Christmas we brought him back in for some academy delivery and put him forward for possible under-20 selection, knowing this was his age group and that he has a point of difference.
“For someone like Ioan, it’s been about looking at where the opportunities might be. That came through Pontypridd, who have been fantastic in supporting him developmentally over the years, and now there’s an opportunity for us to have him in the building more formally.
“He’s proved that he’s ready to take that step up within our environment and is a good example of someone, unlike some of the other under-20 boys who were contracted at a younger age and been with us for a long time, shows that it’s not linear when it comes to recruitment.
“There’s often different entry points for different people and we’re always looking, and being consistent with what we’re looking at, but that can often come at different times along the pathway.
“There’s a lot of different examples of that, and Jacob Beetham is another, who is in his second campaign with Wales under-20. He was someone who had to find his way through Cardiff & Vale College and Glamorgan Wanderers, and it shows that there are lots of elements that have gone into supporting each of those players.
“You do get proud, and you do get pleased for those boys and their families. This is a recognition of where they are at this moment in time.
“We’re thrilled for all those guys, while also realising that the bigger picture means this isn’t the be-all and end-all. We’re very much Cardiff Rugby orientated and where we can take them from this moment is pivotal for us.
“There are other guys who we’re really pleased for as well, who have spent time within our environment. Garyn Phillips was part of the academy when I came into the system and it was really healthy with how we supported him over a period of time.
“It wasn’t working out for him for different reasons, but he’s found his way through an opportunity with Ospreys and we’re thrilled for him and his parents also. Likewise with some of the Exeter boys.
“We have supported those players in different ways and at different points in their career and ultimately it’s for the greater good of Welsh rugby. It’s about developing, with the partnerships that we’ve got within the region and outside, a good depth of players for the Welsh game to flourish.”