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The six Welsh players eleven liked to rugby superstars

Speaking after Jordan Williams had signed a new contract this week, Dragons director of rugby Dean Ryan spoke glowingly of one of Welsh rugby’s most naturally gifted players.

I finished off by saying: “Jordan can get even better and we’re excited that he will do that as a Dragon in the coming seasons.”

Let’s hope Williams does get even better.

It could mean the 28-year-old will become even more of a must-see act than he already is.

Readmore:Wales’ best non-professional team crowned

It’s now nine years since he was likened to a world rugby great by New Zealand legend Sean Fitzpatrick, with the ex-hooker bracketing him with a young Christian Cullen.

Such a comparison can weigh heavily on a young player.

But not always.

Here, we look at what happened to those Welsh players who were hyped with the best as youngsters.

mike phillips

“It’s a huge honor to be labeled as the next Terry Holmes. He was a bit before my time, but I understand he was a legend of Welsh rugby and one of our greatest scrum-halves.

“I have got the ‘Crowning Years’ video at home and he is on that at the end. I’ve seen it a couple of times, so I’ve got a bit of an idea of ​​what he was like.” My father (Trevor) has been telling me what a great player he was as well and how strong and physical he was.

“I enjoy the physical side of the game and having the ball in hand, so I guess there’s a similarity there. But if I can achieve a fraction of what Terry Holmes did, then I’ll be overjoyed.”

So said Mike Phillips before he had made his Test debut in 2003.

Phillips makes his first appearance in a Welsh shirt against the Barbarians in 2003

Like Cardiff and Wales legend Holmes, Phillips was unusually big and powerful for a scrum-half. He had already shown the potential to score tries when they were most needed. And he was clearly a huge competitor.

So the Holmes comparisons came in from far and wide.

Of course, there was only one Terry Holmes, a player who had become an inspiration for so many in Wales during his rugby union pomp in the late 1970s and early 1980s.

But, buoyed by huge self-belief, great fitness and ferocious will to win, Phillips became a top player in his own right, carving out his own game and helping Wales to three Six Nations titles, including Grand Slams in 2008 and 2012. You can read more about Phillips and those Holmes comparisons here.

Very much his own man, he was never going to spend his career in the shadow of anyone.

Rory Tho rnton

Just as Vincent O’Brien’s horse-racing stable in the 1970s didn’t send out duds — think Nijinsky, Roberto and The Minstrel — so Bonymaen RFC tend to have a pretty decent line when it comes to Wales internationals.

Malcolm Dacey and Richard Webster were quality Test players who emerged from there, as did Alun Wyn Jones.

Rory Thornton is from the same stable, coming through the Wales age-grade sides and leading his country at the 2015 Junior World Championship.

The U20s team boss at the time, Allan Lewis, spoke of the articulate and likeable Thornton having an excellent role model in Jones and there were headlines floating the idea of ​​the 6ft 7in youngster potentially being the next AWJ.

With his commanding height and appetite for work around the field, allied to his leadership skills, the lock was given a national dual contract. A golden future seemed preordained.

But injuries then hammered Thornton, checking any momentum he had built up.

Now at Cardiff after moving from the Ospreys, he is still a fine line-out forward who doesn’t hide in defense and puts his hand up for carrying, but so far he has just a solitary Wales cap to his credit, won against Samoa in 2017.

The script had suggested that by now his tally would have been far greater.

There’s still time for Thornton to make a mark at Test level.

But the 27-year-old needs to get a move on.

James Hook

After the Ospreys defeated Bristol in an EDF Energy Cup clash in 2006, with Hook scoring a try, the Welsh team’s then coach Lyn Jones said: “James was running like Barry John. It was an excellent try. He kept the ball in two hands like Barry used to do and showed it around.”

It wasn’t the first time Jones had made the comparison.

As with Terry Holmes, there was only one Barry John.

Of course there was.

But with no shortage of swash and buckle, Hook went on to pile up 81 Wales caps and feature in two Grand Slam teams and the 2013 side that won the Six Nations title.

He also toured with the Lions in 2009.

A stellar career, then.

We've all played against that team who had a goal-kicker that would punish you from all areas of the pitch, James Hook was that man.  Here he is banging another one over at The Gnoll in 2004
James Hook playing for Neath in 2004

Keiran Williams

Able to smash his way over the gain-line? Tick. Low center of gravity and ability to pick sharp angles? Tick. Tough and rugged? Tick.

It didn’t take long for the tag of ‘the new Scott Gibbs’ to be brought into the mix.

There were definite likenesses between the two as youngsters, too. Both accomplished the physical side of the game and shied away from nothing. If Gibbs had soft handling skills to go with his pocket-rocket power, Williams had an eye for a gap and sharp footwork. Ground was invariably made.

Gibbs departed to rugby league at the age of 23 and returned an even more potent player than he had been in the first part of his career, a warrior to his core and blessed with iron mental strength.

Ospreys center Williams has had injuries but is making his own path and has a lot of pluses to his game, among them his relentless directness. His challenge from him is to develop his skill-set from him.

Do that, and he could yet surprise some by how far he goes in the game.

jordan williams

It takes a lot for Sean Fitzpatrick to get excited about a young player.

After all, the great All Black played with and against some of the best in the business.

But when he watched Jordan Williams figure for Wales during the 2013 Junior World Championship, the former hooker could barely contain himself.

Williams dazzled with his running and jinking, his efforts during one game prompting Fitzy to breeze into a Sky Sports studio proclaiming: “Christian Cullen! He reminds me of Christian Cullen.”

Rhys Priestland later called Williams “probably the best young player I’ve ever seen”. You can read more about Jordan Williams here.

Williams can still shred a defense via a moment of brilliance.

But the lad of such sparkling natural ability has still to win a Wales cap.

What’s it all about?

Perhaps his relatively small build has worked against him in a sport where gym monkeys and brick outhouses are increasingly the norm across the field.

The highly respected Kevin George, who has developed players for the Scarlets over an extended period, told Wales Online in 2018 he could remember Williams walking through the door in Llanelli as a 15-year-old. The diminutive figure could pass off both hands, kick goals with both feet and had lightning feet and speed. His running ability from him was second to none.

But reflecting on why such a gifted individual hadn’t gone to the very top, he said: “The days of having a guy in the team because he’s a ‘Barcelona’ player like Messi are gone. Rugby now is so 50/50 between attack and defense and all players have to contribute.

“Jordan is a very quiet boy from a nice family. He’s a lovely kid but sometimes you have got to go out and grab games. Maybe it’s not in his personality of him.

“He’s got all the talent. I just hope somebody can get it out of him because boys like Jordan don’t come around often. If he does come through he’s a world-level player.”

Perhaps he will never hit those heights.

But it’s always a joy to watch him play.

Gareth Owen

The words bracketing Gareth Owen with Gavin Henson from more than a decade ago were delivered admiringly. “Gareth reminds me so much of Gavin, physically as much as anything,” said the Ospreys’ then director of rugby Scott Johnson.

“He’s the olive kid, well-built and a great athlete. He’s probably a bit more explosive than Gav.

“You can’t put in what God left out and he was at the front of the queue when they handed out athletic gifts. He has an amazing turn of speed and physical presence.”

Those who saw a young Owen play will recall an outstanding prospect.

Why didn’t Wales caps arrive by the sackful?

It simply wasn’t to be.

As with others on this list, major injuries bedeviled him, including a shocker that smashed a knee as he was climbing the rugby ladder.

He still played for a number of major teams, mind, including the Ospreys, Scarlets, Leicester Tigers and Newcastle Falcons.

Now retired from rugby and a butcher, he told Wales Online this year: “I’d like to think having such a serious injury early in my career gave me the perspective to appreciate everything that followed. So while I’m not playing any more and while I had my career shortened a bit, I still have memories no-one can take away.”

Perspective and a willingness to reflect on what he did achieve rather than what he could have achieved—a great outlook to have and one that speaks volumes for Owen.


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