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FEATURE Dewi Lake: 'One thing will make the Welsh public feel more positive about the game: winning'

Dewi Lake: 'One thing will make the Welsh public feel more positive about the game: winning'
6 months ago

Watching Dewi Lake bound around the Cardiff City stadium, full of beans, you wouldn’t think he had a care in the world, sharing bacon butties and indulging in light-hearted mickey taking with his fellow professionals. Yet history tells us the Ospreys and Wales hooker has good reason to believe he’s upset someone in a previous life. A catalogue of injuries has limited his cap count with Wales to 12 and sitting injured in a rickety Twickenham chair weeks before the Rugby World Cup, the chatty No 2 had lost his chutzpah.

After an injured-plagued 12 months, the portents had been promising. He had been named captain to play England, in front of 82,000 fans, yet his afternoon had taken a nose-dive after 24 minutes when caught up in a ruck and he ended up with ligament damage and in grave danger of missing out on the quadrennially-hosted rugby jamboree in France.

As play went on, out of sight of the cameras, Lake sat, head in hands, pondering his fate, with a white towel cooling him down. Amongst the melee of match officials, security personnel, backroom staff and fans, one man made a beeline for him: Jac Morgan.

Crestfallen, Lake was glad of the friendly arm round the shoulder extended by Morgan, fearing the worst.

As we now know, Morgan went on to become one of the standout players in France and has returned a household name, while Lake, against the odds, managed through blood, sweat and tears to play a part in three World Cup games. Starting against Portugal and coming off the bench against Georgia and Argentina, he became increasingly influential.

Dewi Lake
Dewi Lake did well to reach the World Cup after injury and was devastated to depart in the quarter-finals (Photo by Adam Pretty/ Getty Images)

Named co-captains for the tournament, Lake is the yin to Morgan’s yang. Lake is verbose and more of a rabble rouser than his contemporary. Morgan for his part, is a roll-up-your-sleeves and lead by example type. The two have a bond that could serve Wales well for the next decade, not that Lake is too gushing about his close ally. “I can’t be too nice to him”, he chuckles. “But seriously, we have worked together for a long time, from the U20s to the last few years with the Ospreys and we’ve remained tight. When he came over to me at Twickenham, it was more as a friend than a leader, and I appreciated the gesture. Out in France he was the standout player for us. Everything he touched turned to gold and he didn’t put a foot wrong. I was chuffed for him, because he’d worked so hard to get there after the disappointment of being left out to tour South Africa last summer. Once he got back into the squad, he didn’t look back.”

Ensconced in a labyrinth of rooms in the bowels of the stadium, at the URC-hosted day in Cardiff, players filmed packages for sponsors, social media channels and chewed the fat with their peers. For some it was the first time they’d seen each other since bowing out of the World Cup in Marseille, in mid-October, so the atmosphere was convivial. Across the room sat a hulking Ryan Elias, a fierce adversary on the field.

We back each other one hundred per cent. We’re competing for the same shirt, but I can’t hate him. We were in some dark places together over the summer, and you can’t do that if you don’t get on with one another.

Lake on Ryan Elias

So does Lake have a Steve Ovett-Sebastien Coe-type rivalry with the Scarlet, where each is spurred on by a grudging animosity for one another and both will stop at nothing to gain the upper hand? Smiling, Lake says far from it. The two are friends. “We back each other one hundred per cent. We’re competing for the same shirt, but I can’t hate him. We spend so much time together. Of course, that competitive edge is always going to be there, it’s in-built in us competitors but in terms of day-to-day stuff, there has to be a time where you think, ‘I have to get on with this bloke’. We were in some dark places together over the summer, and you can’t do that if you don’t get on with one another.”

Despite his prodigious size and adamantine qualities, Lake shouldn’t be pigeonholed as merely a battering ram, or human cannonball to punch holes in obdurate defences. There is more to him. He’s a thinker, sculpted like Rodin’s Le Penseur, and constantly striving to further his knowledge. “I do read a lot of books. Ryan Chambers, our head of sports science, is class. He dished out a lot of recommendations over the summer. The 5am Club, by Robin Sharma is about how to keep your early-morning focus and be productive, and The Art of Leadership was a study of Fortune 500 companies and how they treat their employees and how they build a work ethic into them. It all helps keep you motivated.”

To Lake’s mind, you can’t spend four months together as a squad without letting down the barriers, especially when your body is screaming for mercy during downtime. “I don’t think any of us could have done those trips to Switzerland and Turkey without the friendships and bonds we created. Personally, I thought it led to us doing a lot better than some people expected, though the disappointment of going out to the Pumas was crushing. You have to build on relationships within any squad to find out what makes them tick. You know what buttons to press to motivate them. You know, find out who their girlfriends are, the name of their dog, their kids’ names – the more you know about them, the easier it is to lead that person on the field.”

Lake left the World Cup with his pride intact, but also, after a period of reflection, with some work-ons, which comes with experience. “I think one of my learnings from the tournament was that I was trying to be too vocal as captain. I should have just concentrated on what I was doing on the pitch. Against Portugal, I’d just come back from injury and I felt the pressure to perform and lead. The difference from the Portugal game to the Georgia game was marked. I went from the nerves of settling back into doing my job and felt I had more of an influence as the tournament wore on.”

It was interesting watching how Warbs led team meetings when he was breakdown coach. How he dealt with conversations, how he addressed the group. Those captaincy traits were still very much a part of him.

Lake acknowledges that he is in the enviable position of being able to hive off behaviours from men he admires. “I’ve picked up so much just watching Tips lead at the Ospreys, and Alun Wyn before him. When I first came into the Wales camp a couple of years ago, it was interesting watching how Warbs (Sam Warburton) led team meetings when he was breakdown coach. How he dealt with conversations, how he addressed the group. Those captaincy traits were still very much a part of him. At the World Cup, I’d just watch how Jac did things. It was instructive. You watch. You learn. You absorb stuff.”

With the domestic season now shaking off the rust, and hitting its straps, Lake knows he needs to keep on evolving his game but says there is not one singular metric to gauge his progress. “How I rate myself is different in every game, depending on the opposition. If the gameplan is to keep the ball in hand, and take it to the opposition, I will look at my carrying, but in some fixtures the gameplan is to box-kick to the air, get after them with a kick-chase and work on line-speed so they’ll have to kick it out and we win the territory battle. Then it’s about defence, so whether or not I have I affected the ruck, even if it’s not necessarily forcing a turnover, but slowing the ball down. If the opposition are forced to clean me out or put more numbers at the breakdown, I’ve done my job.”

Dewi Lake
Lake is in action in the Challenge Cup against Benetton and is desperate to lift spirits in Wales (Photo by Huw Fairclough/Getty Images)

Lake expresses frustration that fans and media alike just look at the basic stats like carries, tackles and breakdowns hit, and see that as a sole metric to someone’s success. “Fans expect to see me knocking players over – and believe me, I’m happy to do it – but there are maybe games, for instance against the South Africans, where it isn’t the best option to try and skittle them over. It’s smarter to move them around a bit, because they’re big boys and we’ll see if we can work our boys around the edge.”

A perfect example for Lake of the unsung hero is his former Ospreys colleague, Tomas Francis, who will be joined by George North in Provence next season. “I thought Tom had an unbelievable World Cup. People will probably say, ‘I didn’t see him much’, but he’s hitting 30 rucks a game, making 10-plus tackles as a tighthead prop, keeping our scrum stable, getting us penalties and he still managed to pop up to score a try against Georgia. We probably went into that World Cup with people seeing us as a weak set-piece team, but we came out of it as one of the best teams there. The pressure on the legs, the lifting at the lineout and the countless scrums he’s locking out, especially against Fiji, was immense. He deserves more credit.”

You can try every marketing trick in the book to get people watching you, but performances and results are key. If you go on a little run, it’s amazing to see how many people start to get interested.

Once the sun rises on 2024, there will firstly be a Six Nations campaign to navigate before, inevitably, more talk of the Lions Tour to Australia in 2025 starts to dominate fan and media conversations alike. The Northern Hemisphere is awash with top-quality hookers but Lake, again, isn’t one for matching himself against his peers. “I saw a lot of Peato Mauvaka at the World Cup and he was incredible against South Africa in (Julien) Marchand’s absence. Amongst the home nations, you have to bring Dan Sheehan into the equation; he is very good in the loose as an edge forward. He’s tall, breaks tackles, whereas Jamie George is super-accurate at the lineout and has an incredible engine. I watch them, look at the VT on them. Closer to home, it’s Ryan Elias, or Elliot Dee. They are all brilliant players, but I try not to compare myself.”

The Ospreys, who welcome an in-form Benetton side to Swansea this weekend, need Lake back to his buccaneering, bullocking best. They are the best-placed Welsh region in the URC, standing in 11th place, yet Lake is not immune to the negativity that has permeated the game in recent times. He accepts that there is a simple formula to changing the narrative, albeit one that is easier said than done. “One thing will make the Welsh public feel more positive about the game: winning. You can try every marketing trick in the book to get people watching you, but performances and results are key. If you go on a little run, it’s amazing to see how many people start to get interested.”

First up it’s the Challenge Cup to try to make an impression, but Lake feels Toby Booth’s squad are in good nick. “In the league, we’ve started pretty well, beating the Sharks up in south-west London, in front of 9,000, winning at home against Zebre and we were very competitive against Glasgow, where we lost out late on. Even an inexperienced side competed hard out in Italy [also against Benetton] last weekend. We’ve shown what we want to do and how we want to play. Our defence, led by Mark Jones, has been solid, and the turnaround from last season has been unbelievable. If we can continue to drive those standards, we’ll end up in a good place.”

With Morgan and Lake in tandem, Welsh rugby could yet surprise the naysayers and drive region and country into uncharted territory.

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