Talywain is a small village nestled at the top of the Torfaen Valley where, like so many other communities in South Wales, everything revolves around the rugby club. Fifteen miles north of Newport, you access it from the A4042 that snakes upwards past Cwmbran and Pontypool and is lined by rows and rows of terraced houses, built when the Gwent valleys were renowned for heavy industry.

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In the late 19th century, coal was the principal commodity and railways were rapidly laid to ferry their precious cargo down to the docks of Cardiff and Newport at a time when the area was one of the richest exporters of black gold in the world. These days, while the mines have been sealed off and locals forced to head for Bristol and Cardiff for work, a strong sense of community remains and rugby is woven into the area like a rich seam.

It’s from this background that one of Wales’ most exciting players has emerged. Always big for his age, Taine Basham, shone from the outset. Appropriately named, his size and strength set him apart as a ten-year-old. He regularly skittled players before showing them a clean pair of heels. 

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Such was his impact that a call-up to play for Wales U16s came a year early. From there, all roads led to life as a professional rugby player with the Dragons. He has already made over 30 appearances for his home region and his trajectory has been rapid. 

A call-up to the Wales squad last November arrived days after his 20th birthday when Warren Gatland bade farewell with the Barbarians. A belated call-up to the Six Nations squad then followed, principally off the back of some eye-catching performances which including a man of the match performance against Cardiff Blues.

While he didn’t get to make his Wales debut, Basham’s end of season stats saw him ranked as one of the top-performing back rows in the world – up alongside the likes of Ardie Savea and Hamish Watson. Given his tender years, his OPTA numbers make for arresting reading. From just 13 PRO14 games this season, he made 157 tackles, ten clean breaks, snaffled nine turnovers and stepped 26 defenders all for a princely 328 metres.

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It’s clearly been a breakthrough year for the youngster and with a supportive family around him – quite literally – his feet are planted firmly into the Gwent soil. Indeed, while on lockdown, he is currently adding the finishing touches to a new abode, just yards from the family home. 

“I live in Pentwyn less than a mile from Talywain,” he explained to RugbyPass. “My aunt lives next door so if we want to communicate, we just chat over the garden fence. It’s a proper tight-knit Welsh valleys community. My granddad lived over the road but sadly passed away and left the house in my name. We’re lucky in the valleys. 

“You’ve always got ‘leccies’ or plumbers to help out and I can do a bit of plastering, so doing the house up hasn’t been a problem. I was just about to move in before the pandemic, so for the moment I’m knocking the garden into shape and hitting the weights with my dad in the shed.”

Speaking to Basham, it’s clear David, a grizzled hooker for Pontypool and Cross Keys in the pre-professional era, has been a pivotal influence on his career. “My dad told me he was a really good player – I’m not sure whether to believe him – but he’s always been there for me.

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“He was my coach at Talywain and I remember in one game scoring four tries. Other parents were slapping their boys on the back saying, ‘well done, I’m proud of you’, but at the end of the game I missed a tackle and even though we went on to win, he was giving me gip about that one mistake. Dad sets high standards. He’ll record my games for the Dragons and critique them afterwards, even if I’ve got a man of the match.”

Such tough love is not unusual in elite rugby, but Basham senior did momentarily let his guard down when junior was called up for Wales. “He just slapped me on the back and said, ‘well done, son’. It means a lot to him but he doesn’t let it show. That’s how he works, I suppose.”

In his professional life, another man showing a paternal interest in his burgeoning career is Dean Ryan, who has made tangible progress in his first season coaching the Dragons. Basham has given the well-travelled ex-England No8 the thumbs up. “He’s a brilliant coach. He’s been around the block and it’s obvious he has a really good rugby brain. The thing that stood out for me was when we played Castres at home. 

“I scored a hat-trick in the first-half but when I came in on the Monday, he said he was more impressed with my second-half than my first. I asked why and he said, ‘well in the first half you did all the things that looked good, but in the second half you did all the things a true pro would do, you did the basics well’. That really hit home. I thought, ‘wow, he really knows his stuff’.”

Known for his footwork and dynamic ball-carrying, it comes as no surprise that when Basham was younger, he used to admire a back row who plied his trade a little further west at the Liberty Stadium. “I used to watch quite a bit of rugby but the weird thing when you become professional all you want to do is take a break from it, but the one player I used to love was Jerry Collins. I saw him smash people, run over people, he was just this an all-action player, a beast.”

While Collins inspired Basham as a blindside, in the modern game the number on your back fairly fluid in the back row. Yet there will still be debate over which number he will wear on his back. Seen purely as a No8 at age-grade level like Sam Warburton, he is spending more of his time at openside. 

“At U16s, I was bigger than other boys, a flat-out No8 but I had the odd game at openside for Talywain Youth. I loved the freedom and the fact you could do whatever you wanted – hit people, jackal, get your hands on the ball. To me, it’s the best position ever. I’d happily cover at No8 if there were injuries because I miss picking up from the base of the scrum.”

Openside might be his longer-term position given his dimensions. At a smidgeon under 6ft and weighing 15st 10lbs, his statistics are directly aligned to a certain Mike Tyson – perhaps unsurprising when you learn he is a direct descendant of Newport’s British and European boxing champion, Johnny Basham. 

Squat, with a powerful leg-drive, and he bears certain physical similarities with Sam Simmonds or Michael Hooper. “According to my S&Cs with Wales (Huw Bennett and Paul Stridgeon), my fighting weight is 100kgs lean. You want to have that athleticism, but keep that explosivity, which is my point of difference, I guess. I don’t want to overdo it weight-wise because that is when injuries start coming in.”

The acknowledgement by Wales has given Basham the motivation to kick on. “At the start of the season, I just wanted to get games with the Dragons, but after being called-up I have had feedback from Wayne (Pivac) who said, ‘you’re young, you’re confident, just keep doing what you’re doing’. That was reassuring to hear.”

As for what will help him go the final step, and make it as an international, Basham feels it’s rounding his game, especially at the breakdown. “You can’t get away with only having a few good elements to your game because you will be exposed at the top level. 

“I want to learn from Sam, who was a great captain and a fantastic asset to have for the young boys coming through. One of the technicalities I spoke to him about was when to go in for the ball and when not to commit. Nic Cudd at the Dragons is another I look to for advice because he’s a really good jackaler over the ball. I’m learning.”

Another benefit from the time with Wales has been soaking up the behaviours shown by icons of the game, with Alun Wyn Jones – unsurprisingly – standing out. “His work ethic is contagious. He’s one of the oldest players in the squad but he works the hardest. You never want to be first out of the gym when you see the graft he puts in. 

“I remember we had an off-week training during the Six Nations. In your head you’re thinking, we could take it a bit easy here but at the next lineout set, as soon as the coaches shouted ‘next drill’, Alun Wyn was pelting it off to the next station in front of everyone. You can only follow. He’s a proper leader.”

There had been whispers Basham’s first involvement in a Wales shirt could have come in the summer tour to Japan and New Zealand. With those fixtures in doubt, he may have to kick his heels a little longer, but time is on his side. “I realise that with competition in the back row from people like Justin (Tipuric) it’s not going to be easy. He might be 30 now but he still moves like a boy in his early twenties. His try against England was ridiculous. He is such a classy footballer but just being able to train around him is useful because you pick so many things up.”

 

For now, Basham is happy dogging it out at an improving Dragons side and acting as a sponge for the experience that surrounds him. Two British and Irish Lions have stood out. “When I made my debut two years ago, Gavin Henson had just signed. He was different. He didn’t eat the same food as everyone else in the canteen but brought his own and it was immaculately presented. 

“At the gym, you’d see him stretching, staying on late doing his sets and extras in training and think, that’s a true professional. Plus his tan was unreal. To be fair, Richard (Hibbard) is like that in his professionalism. He’s still doing it at 35. When they were signed, you thought, ‘Christ, these are big names’ but they’re really good boys too.”

While the finishing touches are made to the new Basham residence, he has had time to ponder the next steps and what he wants to achieve. “I’ve found the more success you get, the more you want. I don’t want to look back, only forward. In all honesty, I can’t wait to get back on the field.”

Basham by name, bash ‘em by nature, the young back row has shown there are riches to be found in the Gwent valleys once again.

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