New Wales skipper Dafydd Jenkins is the pride of Porthcawl
It will be the proudest of days for all at Porthcawl RFC when new skipper Daf Jenkins leads Wales out for the Six Nations opener against Scotland.
Jenkins played for his home-town club from U7s to U16s, captaining the side pretty much the whole way through.
Paul Markey was part of the coaching set-up for that year group, along with former Bridgend scrum-half Brendan Roach and Daf’s father Hywel, who performed with distinction for Llanelli, Swansea and Neath.
“I sort of half expected him to be pretty good given who his dad was. But he was something else,” says Markey.
“Since he was about eight, I have been telling anybody who would listen to me that he would play for Wales, genuinely.
“I can remember the one game in particular he was playing against Pontypridd. He must have been nine or ten by that point. I came home and said to my wife ‘Daf is going to play for Wales’. It was one of those moments.
“You could tell. He was almost elite level at that age.
“It was crazy. It was like having a regional player playing for your U9s!
“You know the way he plays for Exeter now, where he’s just everywhere and always in the right place at the right time?
“Well that was what he was like. He was never the biggest boy on the field who just ran through everybody and scored three tries a game, like you get when they are 10, 11, 12.
“It was just his rugby brain, his knowledge and his instinctiveness to be in the right place at the right time.
“It was his work-rate as well. He would make dozens of tackles a game.
“He had the physical attributes, but it was his attitude that stuck out as much as anything. It was incredible. He was totally focussed on it.
“So you had this natural athleticism combined with the desire.
“The other point is he always watched a lot of rugby.
“Most players of his age don’t do that. But Daf was a great watcher of the game, looking at the All Blacks and the like on YouTube and watching his heroes.”
There were also indications from an early age of the leadership qualities that Wales are now turning to.
“He was our captain all the way through to U16s,” says Markey.
“He always led from the front. He’s a very good talker, but he’s a sort of Martin Johnson character as well.
“Everything is work-rate, work-rate, work-rate. It was just incredible to watch.
“He’s a very natural player, but it’s also down to hard work.”
Jenkins, who attended West Park Primary and then Porthcawl Comprehensive, spent his early years in the back row, mainly at No 8.
But then, when he was selected for Bridgend Schools U15s a year early, he was moved to the second row, having shot up in size.
He went on to play for Ospreys U16s and U18s before going over the bridge to do his sixth form studies at that renowned rugby breeding ground, Hartpury College, in Gloucestershire.
“It was like ‘Right, where do I need to go?’,” explains Markey.
“He said ‘I need to go to Hartpury because they have got the best reputation and that’s going to give me my best chance to go where I want to go’.
“As soon as he arrived there, he was getting the attention of a number of English clubs who were all keen on getting his signature.”
In the end, Jenkins opted to sign with Exeter, combining his rugby with studying sports sciences at the city’s University.
He played a key role in helping the college side win the 2021-22 BUCS Super Rugby title, scoring a decisive late try to cap a Man of the Match display in a 14-13 victory over Durham in the final at Worcester’s Sixways ground.
The University’s highly respected director of rugby, Keith Fleming, was asked, not long after that, whether Jenkins was among the best players he’d coached.
His reply was: “The best – he is an exceptional talent.”
Fleming added: “He has special qualities, that boy. You name me somebody that young in his position who’s come forward so quickly in the last decade. You’ll struggle to find one.
“He puts everything on the line for you and doesn’t do anything by halves. He’s a hundred per cent with everything does and he has such a good rugby brain.
“What I like about him, too, is he’s a leader who has an edge. You need an edge in his position. He is going to go a very long way.”
Fleming has proved to be a good judge.
At just 18, he was capped by Wales U20s in the summer of 2021 and then made his debut for Exeter Chiefs towards the end of that year.
But what really caught the eye was when he became the youngest captain in English Premiership history – at 19 years and 342 days old – when he guided the club to a win over London Irish in November 2022.
This was a player going places and, just a week later, he made his Test debut for Wales as a replacement against Georgia at the Principality Stadium.
Typical of the young man, he was quick to remember those who had helped him along the way.
“He texted me and said ‘Thanks for everything you did in the past’,” reveals Markey.
“I said ‘’Daf, I just gave you a lift to training!’.
“I did more the admin stuff and made sure we had a ref and a pitch and all the rest of it. Brendan and Hywel were the two main coaches.”
Markey added: “I have followed Daf’s progress closely.
“He has always been incredibly focused. I can’t imagine him doing anything else other than being a professional rugby player.
“He hardly plays any different for Exeter now than he did for us at U16s. It’s just amazing.
“He is still very much in touch with all the boys he played with here. They are a very tight bunch.
“He is a great character and a cracking kid. He’s still just one of the boys. He’s still the same old Daf.”
Jenkins has gone on to take his tally of Wales caps up to eight, featuring in the World Cup out in France in the autumn, while also regularly skippering Exeter.
Explaining his decision to hand the young man the reins, the Chiefs’ director of rugby Rob Baxter says: “I just watch him and go ‘That’s the kind of guy I’d love to have as the captain of a rugby side’.
“He loves the competitive part of the game, he wears his heart on his sleeve, he doesn’t suffer fools.
“He expects people to get up and get on with things, he expects people to work hard, he expects people to train hard, and why not?
“He keeps it very simple for himself and I think sometimes that’s the best way. It doesn’t have to be some complex calculation. They’re all there playing rugby, they love doing this, well let’s get out and do it well, and Daf embodies that.
“Sometimes that’s the strongest form of leadership and the best form of leadership.”
Now Warren Gatland has followed suit by appointing Jenkins as Wales captain for the Six Nations. At just 21, he will be the second youngest Welsh skipper ever, behind a certain Gareth Edwards.
“Everybody in Porthcawl is very, very proud of him and just delighted to see he has progressed and reached his dreams,” says Markey.
“There have been very few internationals from the club.
“Back in the 1950s, you had Roddy Evans, another second row, who went on to be a British Lion.
“Clive Williams, the loosehead, is probably the most famous. He was a Lion on two tours in 1977 and 1980.
“Then the next caps after that were Tom Prydie and Ryan Bevington.
“So it’s a massive thing for the club. We really need to push on this and get Daf’s photo up everywhere.
“We have got a huge mini section and some really good boys coming through. We can put a photo of Daf on the wall and say ‘Five years ago, he was captaining our U16s and now he’s captaining Wales’. It can be done.”
For Markey, watching Daf in action also brings back memories of his father.
“There are definitely similarities with Hywel. They have got the same running style and that athleticism and the grit,” he says.
A dynamic back row forward, Hywel had a fine club career and played at No 8 for Wales in an uncapped game against the USA at the Millennium Stadium in August 1999.
Alongside him that day were current Welsh team manager Martyn Williams and forwards coach Jonathan Humpreys, plus the likes of Stephen Jones, Allan Bateman and Gareth Llewellyn.
In my match report on that game 25 years ago, I wrote about Jenkins producing “a display of much athletic promise” and how “his time will certainly come”.
As it turned out, he wasn’t to earn a full cap, but he did win leagues and cups at club level and was a prolific try scorer, particularly for Llanelli.
Now he has the pleasure of watching his son not just take to the international stage, but captain his country.
When I spoke to Hywel this week to get some background information, he was very helpful and amenable. He isn’t doing any interviews at the moment as he doesn’t want to jinx anything with Daf doing so well, which is entirely understandable.
But he did ask me to put in that “We are so proud as a family”.
That’s a pride shared by everyone at Porthcawl RFC as their former player prepares for the biggest day of his rugby life so far.
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