As ticker tape rained down on the San Mames pitch one Friday night last May, Owen Lane stood with his left arm aloft and a Challenge Cup winner’s medal hanging from his neck.
Having broken into the Cardiff Blues line-up just six months before it was a thrilling way to cap his maiden season as a first-team player. His face beamed with pride, yet the injury which forced him off the field after less than half-an-hour and confined his right arm and hand to a cast in those post-match celebrations ensures that the memory is bitter-sweet.
“It was special,” Lane tells RugbyPass. “(But) personally I don’t actually feel like I contributed in the final because obviously I went off and it was a difficult one for me because I was so happy we’d won but at the same time I had reservations because I really wanted to be out there and I really wanted to be a part of it on the field.
“But it was still a massive achievement for the Blues and I’m happy to see the Blues do so well, and I know that I was a part of the build-up so it was pretty special to finish the season off like that.”
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Lane had been on fire in the lead-up to that nail-biting defeat of Gloucester, scoring four tries in his previous five PRO14 matches and playing 80 minutes in both the quarter-final win at Edinburgh and semi-final defeat of Pau en route to the Challenge Cup showpiece.
His form had put him into contention for Wales’ summer tour of the United States and Argentina, but any hopes he had of making that trip ended when he trudged off the pitch with his arm in a makeshift sling.
Lane had been dreaming of playing on that stage since he was a child, and his experience in Bilbao has left him with an appetite for more.
“It does give you a hunger,” he says. “And it just means you want to go out and do it again really because you want to experience it.
“I would say it gives you a hunger and it kind of gives you a bit of a drive to go out and do it again.”
The hulking wing-cum-centre has certainly picked up where he left off this season, playing all-but one minute of the Blues’ five PRO14 matches, albeit without yet breaching the try line.
“I don’t think it’s particularly in the forefront of my mind, because that would have a detrimental effect on your performance,” he explains. “I don’t think you should be thinking about that sort of thing when you take the field.
“But regarding if that’s something you want to achieve, I think any rugby player growing up in Wales wants to represent their country. That’s the pinnacle of your career, obviously (there’s also) the Lions but that’s a different kettle of fish.”
Lane adds: “I know that the only way that you are going to get selected for Wales is if you are performing every week for the Blues. There’s a lot of competition here at the moment in the back three and in the centre.
“So, at the moment I’m just concentrating on trying to hold my space here and if you try and put some performances together and bring some consistency then hopefully you get a look in with the senior squad.”
Lane has starred for Wales under-20s having received the “kick up the arse” he needed to rejuvenate his 15s career during a season on the World Rugby Sevens Series circuit. As he attempts to take that next step on the international stage he doesn’t have to look far for inspiration.
An alumni of Whitchurch High School, Lane first met Sam Warburton when the former Wales and British & Irish Lions captain presented his team’s jerseys before a Wales schools final in 2014.
Warburton stayed to watch the match and afterwards he was on hand to offer the youngster some advice. The jackal specialist has of course since retired but that meeting was pivotal in making Lane feel at ease when he started training with the Blues’ first team.
“To even just have a bit of one-on-one time with someone like Sam, he was already a Lions captain (with a) series win in Australia, it was pretty special for me,” Lane says.
“I definitely found it pretty surreal when I was coming into the (Blues) environment that, you’re not really friends but you’ve already spoken to him and you’re already acquaintances with someone like that. It was pretty cool.”
Warburton’s shock decision to end his playing career, at just 29, in July came at a time when Whitchurch High School was headline news. Geraint Thomas, another old boy, was in the midst of an historic Tour de France campaign while Gareth Bale, who had been in the same year as Warburton, had helped Real Madrid to Champions League glory with a stunning bicycle kick two months earlier.
Lane, 20, was some years behind that famous triumvirate, but their achievements provided both a catalyst for his own ambition, and proof that it could be attained.
“They were really good with coming into the school,” he says. “I know Warby (Warburton) and Gareth and Geraint all came in and they’d give question and answers.
“It just makes it a bit more tangible because you can actually see that people from your school in the same situation as you have obviously gone on and performed on the top stage. So, it definitely gives you something to aim for.”
Outside of Whitchurch, Lane was drawn towards the All Blacks as a young rugby fan, but while it was Dan Carter that initially took his attention he admitted paying closer attention to Ben Smith as he attempts to hone his skills on the wing.
“You always look at the top teams and how successful they are, and you naturally gravitate towards the All Blacks. I was a big fan of Dan Carter when I was growing up,” he says.
“But I think now that I’ve got older maybe looking at the players – especially with my transition to the wing – players like Ben Smith. The amount of time he has on the ball and the amount of involvement, I’ve done a lot of work with the analysts on coding.
“Richie Rees, our skills coach, has been coding Ben’s clips from his All Blacks games and it’s definitely something that you can look at and try and emulate, just the amount that he touches the ball.
“And I have a lot of respect for him and what he’s achieved. I think he is probably the best rugby player in the world at the moment.”
Wales and Blues fans will hope youngsters are paying similar attention to Lane in years to come.
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