By Paul Jones
Cameron Winnett reckons Alex Mann is like a big brother and he may need that sibling solidarity when the pair play for Wales against England this weekend.
Winnett and Mann were junior school pupils when Wales last beat the old enemy in a Six Nations game at Twickenham.
But 12 years on from that Triple Crown-clinching victory, both Cardiff prospects will feature in one of rugby union’s most fierce rivalries after being selected to start against England on Saturday.
Cardiff debuts together in December 2021 🏉
Wales debuts together in February 2024 🙌
Cameron Winnett and Alex Mann reflect on a special weekend in the Welsh capital#BBCRugby
— BBC Sport Wales (@BBCSportWales) February 6, 2024
Their sporting careers have a symmetrical appearance, as both were promising footballers – Mann a centre-back in Cardiff’s academy – and they made debuts together for club and country.
They first played for Cardiff across the A316 from Twickenham against Harlequins as teenagers, while Winnett started the 27-26 Six Nations home loss to Scotland last weekend and Mann went on during Wales’ remarkable fightback from 27 points adrift, scoring his team’s fourth try.
Full-back Winnett, 21, was born on January 7, 2003 – flanker Mann on January 6 the previous year – and they look likely to be part of Wales squads heading towards World Cup 2027 in Australia and beyond.
Winnett describes Mann as being “like a big brother” and there is a noticeable chemistry between them, partly forged by their time together for Wales Under-20s, a team that Mann captained.
— BBC Sport Wales (@BBCSportWales) February 7, 2024
Reflecting on his Wales debut, Winnett said: “It was amazing, and everything I had worked for since I was a little kid with a dream.
“I was thinking about all the sacrifices my parents made, taking me to sessions, and all the coaches who had helped me get to that point.”
Mann added: “That is what we work for, really. All those days that are dark days or good days.
“Standing there was a bit surreal, I was just soaking it all in, really. It was probably the best day in the world.”
Game recognises game 🤝
— BBC Sport Wales (@BBCSportWales) February 7, 2024
Mann’s football connection extended to events last Saturday, with his friend Isaak Davies scoring the winning goal for Belgian Pro League club Kortrijk against Charleroi at roughly the same time Mann appeared off the bench for his Wales debut.
Davies moved on loan from Cardiff to Kortrijk last summer, and Mann added: “He was the first I FaceTimed afterwards because he was in Belgium playing and he scored, funnily enough the time I came on, so it was a proud day for us both.”
“I started with Cwmbach, got scouted, and then went straight into the (Cardiff City) academy. The professional set-up, I think that has helped me a lot from a young age.
“Then I started playing rugby again in school, and I knew straightaway that was for me. It just came naturally, the way I am.”
Liam Williams on…
☑️ Cheering on Wales versus Scotland;
☑️ Rookies like Cameron Winnett;
☑️ Twickenham verdict;
☑️ His future with Wales;
☑️ 2025 Lions hopes;
☑️ Fellow Welsh players joining him in Japan. #GuinnessM6N #LeagueOne @Kubota_Spears pic.twitter.com/WcgcMRMuqN
— RugbyPass (@RugbyPass) February 7, 2024
Winnett played soccer as a junior at Rhondda club Cambrian and Clydach Vale, where Terry Venables was chairman and president. Venables’ mother Myrtle hailed from Clydach Vale.
“It had always been rugby and football,” Winnett said. “I played for my local team Porth growing up, and then Cambrian, where I had two seasons.
“After those two seasons, I thought I couldn’t keep on playing two games of soccer and rugby on the same day, so I decided to play rugby.”
Attention now turns to Twickenham as Wales target ending a run of seven successive defeats since toppling England there during the 2015 World Cup.
Mann said: “The senior boys in the group have helped us loads, settling us in. Anything I want to ask, they are more than happy to help.
“I am trying to be like a sponge, really, trying to listen to it all and take it all in.”
George North was recalled as Warren Gatland made wholesale alterations to his side for Saturday’s Six Nations round two match.
— BBC ScrumV (@BBCScrumV) February 7, 2024
Gatland responded to Wales’ agonising tournament-opening loss to Scotland by making seven changes to his starting 15.
Experienced North, 31, returns from a knee injury to replace Owen Watkin, with the powerhouse centre lining up alongside Nick Tompkins in midfield.
Meanwhile, fly-half Sam Costelow, injured in the first half against Scotland, is replaced by Ioan Lloyd, with Tomos Williams chosen instead of Gareth Davies at scrum-half.
Wales were 27-0 down against Scotland before scoring 26 unanswered points to nearly snatch an astounding victory at the Principality Stadium.
They initially struggled up front, with Gatland selecting a new front row of Gareth Thomas, Elliot Dee and Keiron Assiratti to face England after the trio impressed off the bench in the second half against Scotland.
George North returns from injury to play for Wales against England at Twickenham on Saturday as one of seven changes to the team beaten by Scotland. https://t.co/0FUsunvROX
— Adam Hughes (@AdamHughes75) February 7, 2024
Mann, a try-scoring replacement last weekend, has been handed a first Wales start, with the flanker taking over from the injured James Botham.
“We’ve been critical and tough on ourselves this week,” said Gatland after naming his matchday 23 on Wednesday.
“That first half was nowhere near the standards we expect. We simply cannot start the same way this Saturday.”
The New Zealander added: “We showed in the second half against Scotland what we are capable of. Now it’s about building on that performance and playing with some tempo from the off… We need to be accurate and keep our discipline.”
Wales have not won at Twickenham since 2015 but Gatland took heart from England’s unconvincing 27-24 defeat of Italy in Rome last week.
“This is a massive game, not only because of the history and what it means to everyone in Wales,” he said.
“But it’s an opportunity to get things on track a bit more. England are in a rebuilding phase. We’ll go there with a lot of confidence we can build on that second half and belief.”
Wales a day earlier than scheduled in naming the team to face England on Saturday.
George North recovered from a shoulder injury to resume in the centres. https://t.co/Ryhy4kVt06
— Hugh Godwin (@hughgodwin_) February 7, 2024
Uncapped Bath prop Archie Griffin is on the bench, where he is joined among the replacements by Will Rowlands after the lock linked up with the squad after his partner recently gave birth.
Fly-half Cai Evans, the son of former Wales captain Ieuan Evans, will look to win his second cap off the bench.
England coach Steve Borthwick is due to name his side on Thursday.
Wales: Cameron Winnett; Josh Adams, George North, Nick Tompkins, Rio Dyer; Ioan Lloyd, Tomos Williams; Aaron Wainwright, Tommy Reffell, Alex Mann; Adam Beard, Dafydd Jenkins (capt); Keiron Assiratti, Elliot Dee, Gareth Thomas
Replacements: Ryan Elias, Corey Domachowski, Archie Griffin, Will Rowlands, Taine Basham, Kieran Hardy, Cai Evans, Mason Grady