The 21-year-old has the unenviable task of following an all-time great but do not bet against him
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Warren Gatland’s expectation of his new captain, Dafydd Jenkins, could not have been more clearly expressed. The Wales head coach sees his side’s skipper, the second youngest in dragon red – after the great Gareth Edwards – as possessing all the qualities of Alun Wyn Jones.
That is Jenkins, the 21-year-old Exeter lock of 12 caps who was still basking in university rugby two years ago, challenged – and backed – to emulate Jones, the world’s most-capped men’s player, the triple Grand Slammer and widely regarded as one of the greatest that Wales have ever produced. No pressure, Daf.
Gatland is hardly a novice when it comes to press conference mind games but this time it was different. Comparing Jenkins to Jones, 17 years apart, could easily have been dismissed as the head coach attempting to force a somewhat conceitful air of optimism into his new captain’s balloon. After all, were it not for injuries to both Dewi Lake and Jac Morgan – the World Cup co-captains – then chances are that Gatland would never have been cornered into such a juxtaposition. Except, this time, a seed of belief was sown in the minds of the rugby public. To be taken with a pinch of salt, perhaps, but throughout the Six Nations there seems to be a growing credence that this might not have been playful shenanigans from Gatland after all; that this 21-year-old might be the real deal.
Certainly, nothing seen in the maelstrom of Wales’s barmy, unavailing second-half comeback against Scotland last weekend would contest that sentiment, where Jenkins – alongside other senior players – grabbed their own team and consequently the match by the scruff of the neck. Certainly, it is a viewpoint shared in Exeter, at Jenkins’s club, where in November 2022 the lock set the Premiership record for the youngest captain, leading the Chiefs at 19 years and 342 days old. For Ali Hepher, Exeter’s head coach, two moments stand out: one as a stripling student in his first pre-season with the Chiefs and the other on his Premiership debut. Only two? It is easy to forget that Jenkins only made that Premiership debut two years ago.
“Most of the time, guys take a while to get settled into the group but, very early on here, almost inside a handful of sessions in the summer of 2021, Daf pulled the guys together and said: ‘This is not the standard. This needs to be our standard and we need to be working to this level’,” Hepher tells Telegraph Sport.
“He sets high standards and he did that from a very early age. And people listen. Even from the first moment, there was never a feeling of him having to bide his time. It has never felt like he’s said the wrong thing at the wrong time. He’s aware of that. There’s a respect that goes with him because of the work he puts in. That comes quickly.
“It was never ‘who are you to say this?’ It has never been like that. And then, on his Premiership debut, at home to Wasps, he put Tom Hendrickson over but Tom dropped it. They came back to win when we should have put them away. He was composed enough at that age, as a lock forward, to make the pass when a lot of others would not.
“And, the day-to-day, you see him in the gym doing extras, in early doing extras – and he prides himself on that. He doesn’t ask anyone to do more than him. He makes sure he’s the hardest worker.
“He can talk but he doesn’t over-talk. He gets that. His foundation for leadership is that he wants to be the hardest worker first and foremost – he won’t sit back and demand a lot from others and not do it himself. He pushes himself to the limits. Fair play to him; what he’s achieving is incredible.”
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