|Venue: Parc y Scarlets, Llanelli Date: Friday, 8 April Kick-off: 19:45 BST|
|Coverage: Live on BBC Two Wales and the BBC Sport website, full commentary on BBC Radio Wales, Radio Cymru and live text updates on the BBC Sport website and app.|
Helen Ward is honoured at the prospect of becoming the latest member of Wales’ 100-cap club, but the country’s record scorer is happy to admit she never expected to reach this milestone.
Indeed, for the past few years Ward has worried whether she would even get to finish her career on her own terms.
Unable to play or even train during the efforts to combat coronavirus, Ward feared her career was all but over.
Now she stands on the verge of a fairy-tale finish as Wales chase a first appearance at a major women’s tournament.
“Qualifying for a World Cup would mean everything,” Ward told BBC Sport Wales. “What else could beat that? It has to be the pinnacle.”
The honour of reaching 100 caps
Having made her Wales debut in 2008 – scoring in a win over Luxembourg – Ward’s career, like that of team-mates Jess Fishlock, Sophie Ingle and Natasha Harding, has bridged the amateur and professional eras of women’s football.
Ward, however, was not playing in the top flight of English football when Covid-19 restrictions came into force, meaning she was unable to play or train for much of the lockdown period, a time when she publicly admitted she was considering retirement.
Now she is only one cap away from reaching 100, but Ward admits she is surprised to still be playing.
“I have had doubts, 100%. Ask Razza [Rhiannon Roberts, Liverpool and Wales defender] how many times I have sat in our room and ‘retired’ – it would add up to a lot of times.
“Covid was tough. The second big lockdown was a time I considered retiring, but I am so glad I didn’t as I know I would have regretted ending my career.
“I am delighted to still be around.”
Ward says the current professional environment with the national team is completely different from her earlier days representing Wales.
“It’s incomparable,” she said. “When I made my debut, Tucks [Adrian Tucker] was manager and he was part time, juggling it with club commitments,” Ward said.
“We have always been asking for more, ever since. Each manager who has come in has built on the work of their predecessor and many of us have been playing the whole time.
“That is what I would put a lot of our success down to. We’ve had some dips and bad moments, but Wales’ women’s football has been on an upward curve for my whole career.”
Playing football after starting a family
Being Wales’ top scorer and one of the most selected players in Welsh football history is a giant accolade, but is all the more remarkable given Ward has had two children during her career.
“I never thought I would carry on playing after I started a family, but I’m so glad I did,” she said.
“It’s tricky because you always have to make sure the kids are looked after first and foremost.
“But the older they’ve got the more I’ve appreciated having them around.
“There was a video of a goal I scored at the weekend and I could see my little boy jumping up in the picture.
“I’ve watched it over and over again to see his reaction more than the goal itself. Those moments are amazing, and something I never thought I do.”
Ward had her children at a time where there was no maternity support for players written into contracts, something that only came into the game in England in January 2022.
“It’s great professional clubs have to offer that now, it’s big… I didn’t have any of those benefits.
“But perhaps myself and other mothers still playing now, we’ve been the ones to drive that and garnered change – it is great.
“My team-mates now can have a family and not worry about their professional future. They can have a family when it is right for them and not when it is right for their football club.
“I’ve been really fortunate in the way my career’s gone and I’m grateful for every step [in the game] I’ve been able to see.”
The ultimate aim
Ward is set to win her 100th cap during this camp, either at home against group leaders France on Friday or in Kazakhstan on Tuesday.
However, personal accolades are far from Ward’s ultimate aim, which is to represent Wales at a major tournament. The 2023 World Cup in Australia and New Zealand is perhaps the last realistic chance for a player who turns 36 this month.
“We want to get there and compete, that is the aim,” Ward added.
“We have been building and we have learned a lot. We have a lot more in us than we believed before – our performances against top teams have been very encouraging.
“The squad is in a really good place now.”
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