Wales women take on the Barbarians on Saturday at the Principality Stadium, on the back of an impressive run of three straight victories. It’s another chance for Gwen Crabb to prove she made the right call when she swapped her goalkeeping gloves for a rugby head guard, as she tells Graham Thomas.
Gwen Crabb always wanted to catch balls for a living, but just never imagined it might one day be as a rugby player.
The Wales women’s rugby star – whose team are set to appear in front of their biggest crowd on November 30 – once dreamed of being the next Wayne Hennessey.
As a 14-year-old, Crabb was a footballer and wanted to emulate the Wales men’s team No.1 by representing her country between the sticks.
But when she tried rugby – using her athleticism and catching ability in the line-out – then she decided to switch sports and her progress has been rapid.
Now firmly established as an international, Crabb will line-up against the Barbarians at the close of the Wales’ women’s autumn series at the Principality Stadium.
Her playing background is yet another example of the value of an all-sport approach, where the skills and aptitudes of one sport as a youngster can benefit another.
The Ospreys player says: “I was a goalkeeper in football from about four years old until I was around 15. I was in the Wales U17s camp and trained with that squad for a while.
“But as soon as I started playing rugby at about 15, it was a no-brainer. I really enjoyed the family atmosphere and ethos in rugby. And I can’t lie – I really enjoyed the physical contact, too.
“As a goalkeeper, the handling skills transferred really nicely across to rugby – spacial awareness and things like that. The line-out quickly became my thing as well.
“With football, I didn’t think I was actually going anywhere. I was one of those in the background, but in rugby people quickly complimented the way I was playing. I felt, this is what I wanted to do.
“My dad was also a goalkeeper, but now he just enjoys watching me play rugby.
“A few of the girls I played football with have gone on to get into the Wales senior squad, which is good to see. But I know I made the right choice.”
Crabb grew up in Ynystawe, near Swansea and attended Ynystawe Primary before going on to Morriston Comprehensive. Her rugby career took off at Llandarcy Academy, before she went to Cardiff Met, where she is currently studying to become a strength and conditioning coach.
She made her Wales debut this time last year against Hong Kong after battling back from a year out with a serious knee injury.
She already has one Six Nations campaign behind her, but the match against the Barbarians could be something else for the whole squad as it’s a curtain-raiser to the men’s match between the same sides.
Wales women have only done that once before, but not with such a short turnaround of little more than an hour between the matches.
— Dorian Evans (@dorianevans1) November 28, 2019
That means, with fans encouraged to come to the stadium early for security reasons, Wales women could smash their own record attendance of 11,062 for the game against Italy in 2018.
Crabb adds: “We are hoping for a really big crowd and this is a brilliant opportunity for the women’s game. It will definitely be the biggest crowd I’ve ever played in front of.
“For us, this could be the first glimpse of the professional future for the women’s game, which is something I really aspire to be part of.
“In Madrid against Spain, there was a good crowd and the biggest difference it makes is the sheer noise. Whenever someone makes a break, you’re hit by this big noise and that’s great.”
Wales lost that match against the Spaniards, but have recovered impressively this autumn to beat both Ireland and Scotland away from home, plus a third victory over the invitational select team, Crawshays.
For Crabb, the chance for another win as Wales build towards the 2020 Six Nations is an opportunity to move further towards her rugby heroes – Sarah Hunter, one of the stars of the women’s game in England, and Wales men’s skipper Alun Wyn Jones.
Both of her role models just happen to be full-time professionals, something the Welsh women’s game is yet to offer.
Crabb adds: “I was lucky enough to play against Sarah Hunter in the Six Nations, which felt a bit mental. Suddenly, someone I’d looked up to was now a big rival.
“But it was motivating for me. I want to be the best I can be and I won’t stop until I am the best. That’s the way I see it.
“Alun Wyn Jones has been my other big hero. I really like the way he presents himself on the field. He’s so calm all the time, but he does all the basics right.
“He doesn’t always stand out, but he always does his job in the background, whatever else is going on. He’s also always there for other players, which is a big thing.
“He’s been a great captain for Wales, which is something else I aspire to, so it’s not a surprise he’s a hero of mine.”