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Tears, friendship and the day that changed two Welsh boys’ lives

Tears, friendship and the day that changed two Welsh boys’ lives

A week before Christmas 2021, Cameron Winnett and Alex Mann made their senior debuts for Cardiff against Harlequins at the Twickenham Stoop, wearing the 15 and 20 jerseys respectively.

777 days later, the pair, wearing those same numbers on their back, played for Wales for the first time – setting up a return to that particular part of London this weekend as Wales visit Twickenham.

With their debuts just over two years ago brought about in bizarre circumstances, with several of Cardiff’s senior players stuck in quarantine after visiting South Africa, their rise to the national team has come quite rapidly – with both establishing themselves in the Arms Park starting side at the start of the season.

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Prior to Saturday, Winnett had played 15 senior matches, while Mann had amassed just 11. And yet, on their Test bows, neither looked out of place – with Winnett assured from the start and Mann scoring off the bench.

“It was amazing, a dream come true and everything I’d worked for since I was a little kid with a dream,” said full-back Winnett. “It was amazing to be able to sing the national anthem in front of my family, too.”

The occasion was an emotional one, with Winnett in tears during the national anthem.



“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,” the 21-year-old added. “My family were right in front of me, too; it was quite tough. A nice moment.

“I played a lot of football, as well (growing up). My parents would take me to Porth and I’d go from one football session to a rugby one, and on a Sunday I’d played a football game followed by a rugby match. I’m really appreciative of my parents for taking me.”

In fairness to Winnett, he’s a grounded individual who has paid back those sacrifices and then some – helping out his father do repairs on car bodywork.

“On Saturdays, I used to go up and work with him and try and learn that trade with him,” he says. “Yeah, I’d get a bit done with him. It was cold!

“He works in a garage. It was good, waking up about five in the morning and getting home about six, it was a long day of work, an experience that was good.”

For Mann, the experience of a first cap was a similar feeling of pride after a rapid ascension, as the pair waited in the tunnel ahead of facing Scotland.

“That’s what we work for, really; all those days that are dark days or good days,” said the back-row. “Standing there was a bit surreal but we knew we had a job to do and if I got a chance I would try and take it.

“I was just soaking it all in, really. It was probably the best day in the world. Friends and family in the stands. Just ready for it.”

As for his thoughts on the bench as Wales fell behind on the scoreboard, he added: “I was just thinking about personal stuff, trying to bring the energy, lift the boys and make an impact when I went on; just being ready for if I got an opportunity to go on.”

His intervention paid off, with Mann getting over the tryline as Wales nearly pulled off the impossible. And for a player who has impressed the senior players with his attitude at the Arms Park this season, Mann’s reaction to scoring for his country is typical of his character.

“To be fair to the boys they did all the hard work,” he said. “And I was the lucky one with the ball.

“It was like a nanosecond of silence and then I felt Domaz (Corey Domachowski) jump on me so I’ve got a sore back. The stadium was crazy.

“I knew my mates were close on the left-hand side as well, so I saw the videos after, but I couldn’t believe it, and I knew we still had a job to do to win the game. It was on to the next thing then really.”

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There was also a superb tap-tackle on Scotland centre Huw Jones just as the visitors were threatening to break from deep, with Lions wing Duhan van der Merwe also lurking when Wales were looking vulnerable.

“I was just trying to look for triggers whether he was going to pass or whether he was going to run,” said the modest Mann. “I thought he was going to shape to run so I just tried to put my head where it hurts to try to stop him because he’s pretty powerful.

“Luckily enough I had a hand on him. Looking back it was pretty good. I could have taken him down but it was an ankle tap so it could have been better.”

As well as sharing Cardiff and Wales debuts, as well as backgrounds in football – with Mann having played for Cardiff City in his youth – the pair are clearly good friends off the pitch.

“He’s a good mate,” says Winnett of Mann. “That’s a good trait of his. Quite quiet but when he gets out of his shell, he’s good. And the rugby speaks for itself, really.”

“Yeah, he’s a really close friend to me,” adds Mann in response. “We always go for a coffee and have chats together. He’s like a big brother, always there for us.”

On the football front, though, Mann admits Winnett shouldn’t be looking for a kickaround anytime soon with the one-time wannabe centre-back.

“He wouldn’t want to come up against me so we’d better let him off,” Mann jokes, before admitting the round ball has helped them both to this point. “You can see in Cam’s game his footballing skills and I try to bring in footwork and stuff, so yeah I think it has helped me a lot with the football part of it.”

Now, the pair seem likely to both start at Twickenham this weekend – just a stone’s throw from where it all began for them at the Stoop.

“If I get the chance it’s Wales England so I don’t think you can get better than that really,” says Mann. “Yeah, it’s a challenge but face it head on.”

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