By Rob Cole
Johnny McNicholl has turned to his Scarlets team-mates for help to ensure he is word perfect on his Wales debut against the Barbarians today (Saturday).
The 29-year-old New Zealand-born wing wants to feel as Welsh as possible at the Principality Stadium when he steps onto the international stage for the first time and that has involved some lengthy coaching sessions around learning the national anthem.
“I’ve been going hard with the anthem. It is not a language that I know so the pronunciation is very hard for me,” admitted McNicholl.
“Steff Hughes has been the main man for me and we’ve been going at it a good couple of months now. I was just hoping that if I got a chance to play I’d know it well and I can do the anthem proud.
“Steff has written it down in Welsh and then how I might say it in English. That way it is a bit easier for me to learn and I am really looking forward to trying to belt it out on Saturday.
“I almost know it off by heart and the last line is all I have to nail down. I should be done by game day.”
The Scarlets wing will become the ninth New Zealand-born player to represent Wales in what will be another first for fellow Kiwi, Wayne Pivac, as he takes over the coaching reigns from Warren Gatland.
It may not be a capped match, but Pivac showed his intentions in picking the best players available to him as he looks to Wales’ Six Nations title defence in a few months’ time by adding Scarlets McNicholl and Cardiff Blues centre Willis Halaholo to his first squad.
The Kiwi-born duo qualify for Wales on residency grounds after playing for their regions for three years. The injured Halaholo took to social media to answer criticism over his selection, but McNicholl has no concerns about changing his allegiances.
“I love the place and I’ve got one daughter born here and another on the way. We’ve settled in very well and it feels like home,” he added.
“I was nervous on day one in the Wales camp, really nervous to come in. I didn’t know what it was going to be like walking through those doors.
“But everyone was so welcoming. If I was nervous on day one, by day two I was fine and I felt I was already in the mix with the team.”
Whatever negativity Halaholo has received on his elevation to the Welsh squad, McNicholl has had nothing but a positive reaction. He even got the full endorsement of his Scarlets and now Wales backs coach Stephen Jones.
Jones told McNicholl not to worry because “my kids are running around in the garden practising your one-handed touchdown and wanting to be Johnny McNicholl”.
McNicholl will be following in the footsteps of Hemi Taylor, Dale McIntosh, Brett Sinkinson, Shane Howarth, Matt Cardy, Sonny Parker, Gareth Anscombe and Hadleigh Parkes who have played for a senior Welsh representative team. After he dips his toe in the water this weekend, he wants to come back for more in the Six Nations.
“It was a long term goal in my head to try to play for Wales, but I didn’t want to say it at the start because I only had a two and half year contract with the Scarlets,” admitted McNicholl.
“I didn’t know how things were going to go when I first got here. Once I signed again for the Scarlets for another three years I knew then that I could publicly announce it was my goal to play for Wales.
“I’ve arrived a little later than most on the international scene and I’ve got to prove myself. I don’t have that luxury of waiting a couple of years and then building my way into the team.
“I’ve got to show what I’m worth straight away. That means scoring tries, making breaks, making other people look good and making myself look good.
“I don’t mind where I slot in, I’ll be all over the place, and it doesn’t matter what number is on my back. I’ve played in six games for the Scarlets this season and I’ve got three tries, so I’m pretty happy with my form.
“It’s not a bad strike rate and we’re going quite well, winning those narrow victories. Good teams seem to pull away off those, so I’m very happy with our results so far.
“There is loads of talent in this Welsh squad, but I feel as if I can bring something different to the backline. Hopefully, I can do that on Saturday.”
McNicholl shouldn’t have any difficulty slotting into the side given that three of the men who have coached him at the Scarlets – Pivac, Jones and Byron Hayward – are now in the Welsh set-up and he will be surrounded by eight Scarlets team-mates in the matchday 23.
Just behind him will be Leigh halfpenny and just inside him will be Hadleigh Parkes, who knows a thing or two about pulling on an adopted nation’s jersey for the first time.
“It’s good to be playing with someone you know, but there are loads of other good players in the backline. Hadleigh scored twice on his Wales debut, so I’m sure he will mention it to me if I don’t get over the line,” added McNicholl.
“I’ve clicked already with Jarrod Evans this week and there have been a few cross-field kicks that have come off and a few passes that have come from nowhere. So, it’s looking good and Tomos Williams is exciting at nine.”
Wales XV: Leigh Halfpenny (Scarlets); Johnny McNicholl (Scarlets), Owen Watkin (Ospreys), Hadleigh Parkes (Scarlets), Josh Adams (Cardiff Blues); Jarrod Evans (Cardiff Blues), Tom Williams (Cardiff Blues); Wyn Jones (Scarlets), Ken Owens (Scarlets), Dillon Lewis (Cardiff Blues), Jake Ball (Scarlets), Adam Beard (Ospreys), AaronShingler (Scarlets), Justin Tipuric (captain, Ospreys), Aaron Wainwright (Dragons)
Reps: Elliot Dee (Dragons), Rob Evans (Scarlets), Leon Brown (Dragons), Seb Davies (Cardiff Blues), Ollie Griffiths (Dragons), Gareth Davies (Scarlets), Sam Davies (Dragons), Owen Lane (Cardiff Blues)
Barbarians: Shaun Stevenson (Chiefs); Dillyn Leyds (Stormers / South Africa), Mathieu Bastareaud (Lyon / France), Andre Esterhuizen (South Africa), Cornal Hendricks (Bulls / South Africa); Curwin Bosch (Sharks / South Africa), Bryn Hall (Crusaders); Campese Ma’afu (Leicester Tigers & Fiji), Rory Best (Ulster / Ireland, captain) , Wiehahn Herbst (Bulls), Luke Jones (Rebels / Australia), Tyler Ardron (Chiefs / Canada), Pete Samu (Brumbies / Australia), Marco Van Staden (Bulls / South Africa), Josh Strauss (Stade Francais / Scotland)
Reps: Schalk Brits (South Africa), Craig Millar (Sunwolves), Hencus Van Wyk (Sunwolves), George Biagi (Zebre / Italy), Angus Cottrell (Rebels), Jano Vermaak (Stormers / South Africa), Billy Meakes (Rebels), Matt Duffie (Blues)
Referee: Nigel Owens (WRU)