Wales coach Cunningham can look forward again

Ioan Cunningham with Wales players

Ioan Cunningham's next game will be his 30th as Wales head coach but he will take charge with renewed confidence and hope.

Since his promotion from Under-20s head coach to the women's senior side in 2021, the former number eight has taken Wales to new heights.

Successive third places in the Six Nations, qualification for WXV1 and sixth in the world rankings have been major achievements.

But as so often the case in sport - particularly Welsh rugby - record highs build up for an even bigger fall.

Wales equalled their worst run of defeats during this year's Six Nations with a seventh successive loss, and only Sisilia Tuipulotu's last-gasp try to beat Italy prevented a new low.

That meant a play-off against Spain, winners of Rugby Europe Championship - effectively the second tier in Europe - to qualify for WXV2, as well as sealing a place in the 2025 World Cup in England.

Cunningham had said before kick-off that playing in WXV3 would "not be a disaster", but it is hard to believe those above him in the Welsh Rugby Union (WRU) would not have regarded it as such given the significant investment in the women's game.

Rubbing shoulders with Hong Kong and Madagascar, just a year after mixing it with New Zealand, Australia and Canada, would have been damaging.

And for 40 minutes at Cardiff Arms Park on Saturday, that prospect was on the cards after Carys Cox's yellow card opened the door for a far lighter but nimbler Spanish to come within a point of Wales at 21-20.

Cracks in Welsh play and confidence were being exposed until a calming word at half-time enabled an assured second-half display and an eight-try rout.

"It's been a long and hard season. There was pressure on the game and it was a real arm wrestle in that first half," said Cunningham.

"In a strange way it was good to go through a bit of adversity. If we had scored three, four or five tries then we wouldn't have had to find a way to get back into the game.

"We could see after 45-50 minutes they (Spain) were starting to go, so we kept the foot on the throat and I'm pleased with the way we got through it.

"It's about building confidence and momentum. We’ve come off an Italian win and now a Spanish win and we can take a lot out of it."

Having put themselves in this position, Wales had to drag themselves through this extra fixture at the end of a long season to ensure qualification for the 2025 World Cup and - before that - a place at WXV2.

They will face three teams from Australia, Italy, Japan, Scotland and hosts South Africa in September.

Wales are lining up August friendlies against Scotland and Australia, when Cunningham can continue the evolution of this team

New style

It has been no secret the Welsh strength lies with the likes of forwards Sisilia Tuipulotu, Gwenllian Pyrs, Alisha Joyce-Butchers and Alex Callender.

But Wales have been one dimensional with their three-quarters - despite playing for Premiership Women's Rugby winner Gloucester-Hartpury - reduced to spectators.

Before facing Spain, a staggering 18 of their 20 tries this season came from their pack. Since the start of 2023, that figure is 31 from 37.

It had looked more of the same on Saturday as forward trio Callender, Abbie Fleming and Joyce-Butchers crossed, as Wales toiled to keep free-running Spain under wraps.

But once the shackles were off against the visitors, Wales produced as close to 'total rugby' as they have shown in years, embodied by wing Cox scoring a second-half hat-trick.

"I’m pleased that we showed the ability we have when we moved the ball and we scored a variety of tries," said Cunningham.

"Over the last 18 months we have created a pack of forwards that can compete with the best in the world, now it’s about adding width to the game.

"I'm pleased we're allowing our players that are extremely talented to show it."

Scotland and Ireland used WXV2 as a launchpad for success. Now Wales will hope to do the same to regain their place among the world's elite.