Jersey connection between Callum Sheedy and Kieran Hardy could get Wales firing

Callum Sheedy celebrated European success with Bristol Bears last season

While 2020 will carry unique memories for us all, for Callum Sheedy, it has largely been a positive year, and certainly one to remember.

The fly-half has gone from strength to strength with club Bristol Bears, helping to guide them to a Challenge Cup crown, and back into the Gallagher Premiership play-offs.

He has been the conductor of a most impressive band of attacking artists and having earnt a first call-up for Wales, he will make his second start for his country on Saturday in their Autumn Nations Cup play-off against Italy.

Schooled on either side of the Severn Bridge, capped in an England XV against the Barbarians last year, and qualifying for Ireland via his father, Sheedy’s international future once appeared entirely uncertain.

But the heavy Cardiff accent rather betrays where Sheedy’s true loyalties have always lied. Certainty that, in Sheedy’s words, “red was my colour” came when the 25-year-old found himself overwhelmed by emotion and on the verge of tears after answering Wayne Pivac’s phone call.

At least in the Test arena, Sheedy is now firmly a Welshman, and emerging as an increasingly intriguing option as Pivac aims to establish his style on a side that has so far misfired in his tenure.

“When I speak about Wales and think about Wales I get that feeling in my heart, you almost get butterflies and the hairs on the back of your neck stand up,” Sheedy said ahead of the weekend.

“The whole seven weeks that I have been here have been really good for me in terms of my growth as a player, as a person, learning different ways of playing the game and improving my skillset. To get another chance to play at 10 on the weekend is massive. It is a huge opportunity and one that I can’t wait to take.”

Being thrown into an international squad in such a peculiar year could have proved most difficult for Sheedy, particularly in a position that demands so much in so many ways. He is something of an imported oddity, too, having not played a senior game for a Welsh province or club.

Yet Sheedy has, by all accounts, including his own, settled in well. He has been aided by the presence of Bristol Bears teammate, and fellow international newbie, Ioan Lloyd, as well as a couple of other familiar faces.

Most notable of these is his half-back partner on Saturday. Scarlets scrum-half Kieran Hardy partnered Sheedy against Georgia two weeks ago, and the duo will be in tandem against the Italians this weekend as Pivac aims to find consistency at nine and ten.

The pair had been foes when Cardiff Under-11s met their Llanelli counterparts; friends since they first teamed up in the Welsh halves at Under-16 level.

It was a friendship that strengthened further in the most unlikely of locations. At the beginning of the 2016-17 season, and down the pecking order at Bristol and Scarlets respectively, each found themselves playing their rugby off the coast of Normandy, contracted at Jersey Reds in the English second-tier.

It is a unique rugby existence on the Channel Island. Away trips are not as simple as a shoot up the motorway, and the small, close-knit community on the island means there are few places to hide in what Sheedy describes as “like a bubble”.

The pair enjoyed four months together in a Jersey shirt, and each man speaks highly of how their time on the island helped them become the players they are now. But on those long away trips, or on the streets of Saint Helier, did the pair even dare to dream of the prospect of swapping the red of Jersey for the red of their home nation as Wales’ chosen half-backs?

“We probably joked about it because at the time we were probably a million miles away!

“He came back to Scarlets, I came back to Bristol, and we sort of grew as players. Then it became more of an achievable target. We still have a bit of a laugh and a joke now about the Jersey days, but those days were massive in terms of our development. To both start there and be here now is very special.”

That both are here is testament to their hard work. The pair will draw on their knowledge of each other in partnership against the Italians and are tasked with getting the Welsh attack firing after a disappointingly flat autumn under Pivac and attack coach Stephen Jones.

“It is not easy when new coaches come in, new players come in.” Sheedy reflected on his first experience of Test rugby. “People shouldn’t expect it just to happen overnight. We are a work in progress at the moment.

“We are creating opportunities. It is just about being clinical, making sure we are taking those tries when they become available because in a Test match rugby, you might only get one, two, [or] three opportunities.

“The whole seven weeks has been brilliant. I definitely think I’ve improved as a player and improved as a person. Considering eight weeks ago when I came in, I am going to leave on Sunday a much better player, and a much more mature person.”

From their days at Jersey, to now pulling on a Welsh one, it has been an unconventional and unexpected rise to prominence for Wales’ half-backs. To sign off his Autumn Nations Cup campaign with a win would be “huge” for Sheedy, but he, Hardy, and their teammates are also focused on an improved performance.

“I think it would be quite easy to just get outcome-focused and say ‘we need to win, we need to win’ – of course you want to win, you want to win any game.

“We know that if we do our process right, play the way we can play, and set the stall with everything we have trained in the week then the result takes care of itself.”