Wales’ Ones To Watch – Prop Idols and Hooker Heroes

Not long after Wales’ 2015 RWC campaign, it appeared to me that Wales’ squad was beginning to stagnate, with very few young players being given a chance to showcase their talents on the international stage. A little over two years on and I now see how wrong I was, the next batch of stars wasn’t being neglected, they were simply being refined and hardened in the regional arena. There’s some real talent coming up through the Welsh ranks today and I think they’ll be key to our campaign in Japan come 2019.

Loosehead Props

At one point it seemed that Gethin Jenkins would be able to play until he’s well into his sixties, and in all fairness, the 37-year-old still has an engine on him and he’s still a phenomenal player for the Blues. However, the advantage experience has over youth lasts only as long as the player on the field does… and there are plenty of youngsters who have carried on where Jenkins left off.

There are now three looseheads in Wales that are flying the flag proudly for their nation, two from the Scarlets region and a third from the Ospreys. Few will argue that it is Rob Evans who is the first choice currently; the Haverfordwest farmer is the quintessential modern-day loosehead. A stalwart scrummager at the set piece, which is, of course, the bread and butter of a prop, Evans also possesses some sophisticated hands when it comes to passing, often used as a deceptive distributor by the Scarlets that throws opposition defences completely out of harmony. Combine those skills with his ability to last the full 80 minutes and carry the ball with pace and power, Evans is fast becoming one of Wales’ key figures.

Another Scarlet, 25-year-old Wyn Jones from Llandovery who also has a farming background in Llandovery, is similar to Evans in a way. Both around the 6ft mark and hovering around the 18 stone mark; Jones has an aggressive scrummage style and is equally fiery in the loose. Less likely to be seen passing the ball a great distance; Jones’ strengths lie in carrying the ball over the gain line with surprising speed. When a player is held up in the contact area, it’s a safe bet that it’s Jones who’s involved in the snare!

And finally, there’s Nicky Smith, the Ospreys loosehead who came to the fore with Wales U20 before going on to make his debut against Fiji in 2014. Although somewhat smaller than his Scarlets counterparts, Smith has proved to be a very mobile prop and has lately become a real asset for his region in the loose.

With Rob Evans, Wyn Jones both 25 and Nicky Smith just 23, the number one shirt for Wales is in safe hands for the next decade at least; and I can’t see them in action during the 2019 Rugby World Cup in Japan following what is likely to be yet another gruelling summer camp!

Hookers

Wales seem to be blessed with an abundance of prolific hookers in the game of rugby of late. From the likes of, Richard Hibbard, Scott Baldwin and Ken Owens who have long since established themselves as impressive stalwarts in the Welsh jersey; we now look ahead to the future of the number 2 shirt, and we don’t have to too far afield.

Ryan Elias has been nipping at the heels of Ken Owens at both regional and international level, earning his first cap for Wales over the summer and in my opinion is a candidate for Wales’ first choice hooker in just a few short years.

The tenacious youngster made a real statement at regional level, stepping up to face the world-class front row of Toulon on his Scarlets debut and has since become an absolute wrecking ball around the pitch. Almost 6ft 2in and pushing 17st, the 22-year-old is a real brute and is a force to be reckoned with; acting more like an additional back row forward in the loose, Elias has no fear going into contact and does so with stunning ferocity. The fact he has Ken Owens and Emyr Phillips as his mentors over in Llanelli doesn’t hurt either; I’m expecting great things from young Elias over the next few seasons!

However if it’s try scoring hookers you’re looking for, Dragons’ Elliot Dee is your man. The Newport born 23 year old made his debut against Georgia, and seemed to make a difference at the set piece; even if he didn’t get much chance to show off his skills in attack. Often seen making the gritty hard yards, Dee has unrivalled skills in steering a maul from the rear and finding his way to the try line; a revelation that Bernard Jackman has utilised to great effect since taking the helm at the Dragons.

We also mustn’t forget former Scarlet Kirby Myhill; who along with Rob Evans and Samson Lee, helped Wales U20 to a World Championship Final. However, the now 25-year-old hooker was competing with the likes of Cannonball Ken, Emyr Phillips and Ryan Elias for a spot in the Scarlets team; Myhill headed east to join the Cardiff Blues along with fellow Scarlets George Earle and Steve Shingler. The Burry Port born hooker has plenty of talent and under Wilson, may still find his way into the international set-up given the opportunity.

However, will these two have done enough to surpass the British and Irish Lions hooker Owens and the 34 times capped Baldwin? If the latter keeps trying to pet actual Lions, then it may happen sooner than expected; but considering that Owens, Baldwin and Dacey will still only be 32, 31 and 30 respectively by the time the next Rugby World Cup comes around, there may be little change to the hooking hierarchy for now.

Tighthead Props

When Adam Jones announced his retirement from international duties, all eyes fell on Samson Lee as Wales’ new hope in the tighthead berth. Aged just 22, it was a lot of pressure for the young man, despite the breadth of his shoulders. It was more devastation for Welsh fans when Lee ruptured his Achilles tendon in a scrum just 12 minutes into the Six Nations match against Ireland. Gatland had to extend his reach to Exeter to steady the scrum, calling in Tomas Francis to replace the injured Lee. With the 2015 Rugby World Cup looming, the lack of tightheads was such an issue that Samson Lee’s recovery was accelerated to try and make sure he was fit for the tournament. Although he did make a speedy recovery and featured in the historical competition, Lee was never 100% and the decision may have ultimately crippled his recovery progress tenfold.

Fast forward to 2017 and suddenly there are some exciting new tighthead props who are champing at the bit to squeeze into a Wales jersey. Leon Brown, who made his debut start for Wales against Georgia has the coaching staff raving about his scrummaging ability; and the young Dragon isn’t too shabby in the loose either! Recently turned 21, Brown is an imposing figure in the front row, standing over 6ft 2in tall and almost 20st; and like a fine wine, he’ll only get better with age!

The Blues have also been quietly developing some tighthead talents of their own; 21-year-old Dillon Lewis, from Church Village, was on a meteoric rise, keeping even Brown out of the Wales U20 starting line up before suffering an injury that kept him sidelined for the majority of last season. The youngster returned in time to make his international debut against Samoa in June 2017 and has clearly impressed the coaching staff. Keiron Assiratti is another who’s been under the guidance of Danny Wilson, and although the 20-year-old has been taught some harsh lessons up front in the scrum on regional duty, the former Wales U20 prop from Pontypridd shows great potential. A few years additional experience with the Blues could see this youngster develop into yet another formidable tighthead, or potentially a fly-half with skills like this:

Video: Outrageous dummy by Wales U20 prop

 

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