Wales duo set to become latest members of the 100 club

LEGENDS: Natasha Harding and Helen Ward are closing in on 100 Wales caps
LEGENDS: Natasha Harding and Helen Ward are closing in on 100 Wales caps

Helen Ward and Natasha Harding are set to join the 100-cap club when Wales continue their bid for World Cup qualification next month.

Ward and Harding have been named in a 26-strong squad for 2023 World Cup qualifiers against France and Kazakhstan, just two days after Wayne Hennessey reached the three-figure milestone for the men’s team.

Watford striker Ward is Wales’ record women’s scorer with 44 goals from 99 appearances, while Reading utility player Harding stands two caps away from her own century.

Wales manager Gemma Grainger said: “They’ve been right through the journey of the women’s game from the amateur side and the lack of full-time opportunities to the professional game.

“It’s a real credit to both players and a show of their resilience and determination to be playing at this level now.”

Ward, who represented England at under-23 level before switching international allegiance, played for Arsenal, Chelsea and Reading and returned to first club Watford in 2017.

The 35-year-old has combined her playing career with motherhood and considered retirement after coronavirus stopped her level of football for some time.

Grainger said: “As a club coach in England I’ve tracked Helen’s career and she very much fits into the Hall of Fame in the WSL – the clubs she’s represented over the years and now at her home club.

“Her career has spanned over a long period of time, but the one consistent is Helen’s speed, quality to finish in the box and her commitment to be the best she can be.

“She took time out to have the children and to come back to this level is a huge inspiration for many people. She’s a bit of a trailblazer for that and shown it is possible.”

Harding has been in outstanding form for Reading and was named in the WSL team of the week on Monday.

The 33-year-old could also reach three figures during this camp and join Welsh female centurions Jess Fishlock, Loren Dykes and Sophie Ingle, as well as Chris Gunter, Gareth Bale and Hennessey in the men’s game.

Grainger said: “Tash is a joker, a bundle of energy, and probably has a career in stand up when she decides to finish playing.

“But Tash has a great balance between the serious side and her leadership role and the joking side. She’s a fierce competitor with a winning mentality.”

Wales resume World Cup qualifying five points behind Group I leaders France and two ahead of third-placed Slovenia.

Grainger’s side suffered their first defeat in November when France sealed a 2-0 win after Kayleigh Green had been sent off and Fishlock rattled the upright seconds before Selma Bacha’s last-gasp clincher.

“We were a goalpost width away from equalising against France with 10 players and we’ve got to remember that,” Grainger said.

“This is a perfect time to build on the momentum of the success of the men’s team.”

Tottenham midfielder Josie Green returns after missing the Pinatar Cup in February, but Esther Morgan and Hannah Cain both miss out due to injury.

Wales squad: L O’Sullivan (Cardiff), O Clark (Coventry), P Soper (Plymouth, on loan from Chelsea), R Roberts (Liverpool), J Green (Tottenham), H Ladd (Man Utd), G Evans (Reading), R Rowe (Reading), S Ingle (Chelsea), L Woodham (Reading), A Filbey (Charlton), A James (Orlando), C Williams (Man Utd), C Estcourt (Coventry), J Fishlock (OL Reign), C Jones (Man Utd), F Morgan (Bristol City), M Wynne (Charlton), K Green (Brighton), E Hughes (Charlton), H Ward (Watford), N Harding (Reading), C Holland (Liverpool), C Bull (Bristol City), G Walters (Sheff Utd), M Rogers (Watford, on loan from Tottenham).