It’s one of the least experienced Wales teams in over a decade in terms of caps on the field, and while that bodes well for the future, it’s also exciting to see who can step up and take responsibility today. That’s what Warren Gatland will want to discover: when that pressure is on and you have to defend your line, or you’re under a barrage of pressure in your 22, who will be the player directing the boys and telling them what’s expected of them? It’ll be fascinating to see who thrives in that situation.
You’ll often find that the people who are unable to handle those hyper-intense situations in Test rugby are the ones who haven’t prepared for them properly. As a young player starting out in my international career, there was a sudden realisation that training during the week isn’t just a case of going through the motions. It’s about reaching an intensity that is almost at Test level. I say ‘almost’ because you can never replicate a game, but things like Gats’ savage sessions where we would be worked to the point of exhaustion before having to make split-second decisions, they better prepare you for what’s to come.
When I think about players who would set standards on the field and could prepare a young player for international rugby, two spring to mind from my experience – and both were on the British and Irish Lions tours I went on. Johnny Sexton, firstly, was the ultimate general. If somebody didn’t know their roles, he would get into them. He knew what his job was and what was expected of him, and it was a given that you should know yours. If you didn’t, you’d soon hear about it.
Owen Farrell is another. Him and Johnny are very similar: elite performers, those ‘Test match animals’ you hear so much about. I get that it can be quite intimidating for a young player to be on the receiving end of their orders on the field, but I see it more as a big brother-type of dynamic. They’re not doing it to make anyone feel bad. They’re doing it because they know what’s coming and they demand a certain standard.
Wales now have a new captain in Dafydd Jenkins, and I’ve heard very good things. He’s had captaincy experience down in Exeter and been touted from a young age as a future Welsh captain. His time has arrived. He has to create his own identity and not feel like he has to be Alun Wyn Jones or Jac Morgan. Those players have been successful because they’ve done it their own way and not tried to imitate anyone.
Talk about doing things your own way, I know the sporting world has been abuzz about Louis Rees-Zammit’s NFL ambitions. It would have been quite easy for him to stay in rugby and go to a big French or Japanese club, where he’d have a lot of money thrown at him. Instead he has this ability, through his skillset and phenomenal speed, to give the NFL a crack. As a professional sportsman, I regard NFL players as the ultimate athletes. You look at the scores in their Combines – or the ability they have to catch a ball one-handed – and just marvel at them.
I can’t wait to see how Louis’ 40-yard dash time compares to top wide receivers in the game like Tyreek Hill or DK Metcalf. As I was walking down from training the other day, some of my teammates asked me why Louis would want to do it. It was a horrible day and I said, ‘Boys, we’re in the pouring rain in Llanelli and he’s in Florida.’ I hope he enjoys it and gains a great experience. I’m a Patriots fan, so I hope at some point in the future if he does make it, I get some tickets from him!
Scotland will feel they’ve never had a better chance to win in Cardiff than today, having not won here since 2002. They’re a team on the rise, and Edinburgh and Glasgow are doing well. However, what they’ve lacked in recent years is repeatability: backing up those big wins they’ve had to put them in title contention. To win a Championship you can’t be happy with what you’ve just achieved: you’ve got to keep looking ahead to to that next game.
I saw that Gats raised the subject in the new Netflix series of whether he was tarnishing his legacy in Wales by coming back. My take on it is that nobody can take any of those Championships away from him, and he oversaw the most successful period in Welsh rugby history. It might be a case of some people having short memories, but we also need to realise that sport can change quickly. France and Ireland have taken the game in the northern hemisphere to new heights, and England did well at the World Cup. Those teams are now in a confident position.
I’m inclined to say that Wales are probably at a point where this Championship feels like a free hit. People here will always support the Welsh rugby team fiercely, but I don’t know whether that level of expectation is as high as it has been. Because of that, these boys have an opportunity to play without pressure, to play their natural game and to establish how they want to play. I say that because this new group needs its own identity.
Dafydd Jenkins and his team are laying a new foundation for the future of the Welsh national team this afternoon against Scotland, and we should all be excited about that.
Only Dan Biggar (18) has assisted more tries in the men's Six Nations for Wales than Jonathan Davies (12). During his Six Nations career (2011-22), Wales had a 68% win rate with Davies in the starting XV, compared to 53% when he didn't start or feature at all.