Dillon Lewis was never born to be a ballet dancer or a jockey. With genetics inherited from his father, ‘Big Tony’, Lewis bowled around the playing fields of South Wales wreaking havoc on his smaller limbed opponents who were invariably trampled by the aspiring backrow marauder.
Back then, growing up in Church Village, a mile or so outside Pontypridd, life was simple. An opportunity to kick about with mates, which included Cardiff and Wales fly-half Jarrod Evans, and precious little responsibility. Broncos and bleep tests were to come but for the energetic pre-teen, getting out in the fresh air and impersonating his village’s favourite son, Neil Jenkins were all he needed.
As his talent and prodigious strength was noted at schoolboy level, Lewis was invited to train with Pontypridd. Having grown up on the terraces of Sardis Road, where he could watch the likes of Michael Owen, Richard Parks and Sonny Parker giving their all in Europe, with ‘Ole, Ole, Ole’ ringing in the opponents’ ears, Lewis didn’t have a care in the world.
As his teens progressed, his need to stay away from the biscuit barrel and train ‘lean’ became something of an Achilles heel for the 37-cap front row. The man he credits for turning his loathing of hard graft into something he could tolerate and prosper in was a Ponty legend.
“At a young age, Dale McIntosh was my Academy Coach. I’ll be honest, I was there for the rugby, not the conditioning, which I hated”, he tells RugbyPass+. “After a few weeks, he said, ‘Dillon, come sit down’. So he pulled up a pew and said, ‘mate, you’re going to have to learn how to enjoy fitness,’ in his distinctive Kiwi accent. I still don’t enjoy it, but I know I can’t hide away from it. If I play the way I want to play, and for me to enjoy my rugby, it’s a necessary evil.”
Though Lewis underplays his dedication to keeping the engine ticking over, the statistics point to a player who has the sort of V12 engine John Deere would be keen to replicate. In the 70 minutes he’s played in the 2022 Six Nations, he’s made 18 tackles, or one every four minutes.
More staggeringly, in the 2020 Six Nations, in the 27-23 loss to France, the data boffins OPTA worked out that the 18st 6lbs No 3, was the first red shirt to the breakdown on 40 occasions in the 70 minutes he was on the field, invariably wrestling at maximum intensity with 120kg behemoths clad in blue.
The softly spoken words by McIntosh had clearly landed with the impressionable teenager who had evolved into a modern-day athlete.
When Lewis entered the fray against Scotland earlier in the tournament, with 16 minutes left on the clock, he made seven tackles and made a key turnover, which arguably swung the game. As a proponent over the ball, the 26-year-old has few equals.
At present, the front-row is rocking an eye-catching look. With a skinhead and a bushy, sloping moustache, you can take your pic between notorious lifer Charles Bronson and a Victorian strongman in a leotard.
Where I lived, 90 percent of my mates played rugby. I grew up on the same street as The Chief (McIntosh), so you can imagine what that was like. Fortunately, I took a liking to it.
He may look intimidating but once you get talking to him any fears are dispelled.
Growing up in a rugby-obsessed area, Lewis acknowledges that you had to stand your ground. There was no room for shrinking violets.
‘As boys, we didn’t have many options but to give rugby a go. My big heroes were local boys, Jinks, Gethin Jenkins and ‘Nugget’ (Martyn Williams). My dad was a massive influence, coaching me from U7 level and it’s hard not to get swallowed up by it. Where I lived, 90 percent of my mates played rugby. I grew up on the same street as The Chief (McIntosh), so you can imagine what that was like. Fortunately, I took a liking to it.”
In his formative years, he pined to be a fly-half, and it’s a light-hearted wish on his Instagram bio, but as he filled out there was only one route he was heading. “I loved playing in the backrow, but one day someone tapped me on the shoulder and pushed me towards the front-row. It’s not exactly miss-one’s and hitch-kicks, but I’ve grown used to it.”
Lewis, who starts against Italy, is your archetypal modern-day prop. Someone who’s as happy taking the ball as first-receiver, ready to truck it up the guts of the opposition defence or tip a pass on to set Wales free into the wide channels. He doesn’t appreciate being stereotyped. “I don’t subscribe to the old adage that props can only push in scrums and hit rucks. I’d be a bit disappointed in myself if I couldn’t pass the ball off both hands after playing the game for 20 years. Making tackles and getting the ball in hand were what attracted me to the game in the first place.”
We are close-knit as a family but if they think I’ve been rubbish, they’ll tell me in no uncertain terms. If I walk in the house after a bad game, the old man will just shake his head and carry on watching TV. Typical Welsh dad, basically.
Down-to-earth and approachable, Lewis doesn’t strike you as the type to forget his roots. The life of a celebrity is alien to him and he knows getting ideas above his station will not be tolerated. “There are quite a few characters round here who will tell you exactly what they think of you. Everyone has an opinion on rugby. We are close-knit as a family but if they think I’ve been rubbish, they’ll tell me in no uncertain terms. If I walk in the house after a bad game, the old man will just shake his head and carry on watching TV. A typical Welsh dad, basically. I understand it’s tough for him because he was my coach when I was younger and now he has no input. Still, he likes to get his ten pence in.”
Lewis will win his 38th cap against the Azzurri, making a rare start, with Tomas Francis rested. The desire to keep on improving and challenging Francis and Leon Brown, keeps the fires burning. “I probably wouldn’t have believed you a decade ago if you’d said I’d have won as many caps as I have. A lot of them came thick and fast at quite a young age and it was a bit of a blur. Looking back, I couldn’t take it all in. At the moment, we have a lot of competition at tighthead, and I feel the gap is closing. I’m far from the finished article, but the exciting part is seeing how much I can improve. Hopefully I’ve got a few years left in me,” he says.
It’s often said props peak between 25 and 30, so Lewis is in his prime, so what does he think about when preparing to pack down opposite the likes of Andrew Porter, Joe Marler or Cyrille Baille? “I have a three-point checklist. In the week leading up a test, I’ll highlight the details I need to concentrate on before scrum-time. Stuff like feet position, the bind and point of entry. There are deviations depending on the opposition, but you have a process and you stick to it.”
In his youth, Lewis looked further afield at tightheads to aspire to, and a certain 110-cap Wallaby tighthead
“I used to be a big fan of Sekope Kepu. I was lucky enough to play against him at the 2019 World Cup and he didn’t disappoint. He was one of the first modern-day props. He was very mobile, good around the park, but he did the basics well. Nowadays, Tadhg (Furlong) is rightly lauded as one of the best in the world, if not the best.”
As for his work over the ball, which is as good as any on the Test stage, Lewis said he was fortunate to learn from the masters. “My breakdown work is thanks to having a few of the best role models ever. In my first few years at Cardiff, I had Warby (Sam Warburton) and Gethin to watch and learn from. Nowadays it’s something I prioritise in the week and I need to keep working on it.”
I’ve always liked a joke but it’s knowing when to pipe up, or not. I’ve been reprimanded a few times. If you could have seen some of the things I’ve seen with my parents you’d think I’ve turned out pretty normal!
As the tournament draws to a close, Wales will rue their no-show against Ireland, but a spirited win over Scotland, and narrow losses to England and France point to a squad with growing depth as the World Cup draws ever nearer. “Coming into the Six Nations, we had a lot of our most experienced boys injured. It wasn’t ideal. But if you look at it from another angle, it gave a load of boys a chance. Whereas we were missing Ken Owens, we’ve seen Dewi (Lake) play and he’s been superb. In the backrow, with Navs mostly unavailable and Tips out, Jac Morgan and Taine Basham have been given precious starts and now Seb Davies has stepped up too. In the backline, Owen Watkin has come in and done a great job after a time out. We are in a better place than we were.”
In camp, Lewis’ natural ebullience and bonhomie means he is a popular squad member but it’s taken him time to learn when to play the role of the joker and when to knuckle down. “I’ve always liked a joke but it’s knowing when to pipe up, or not. I’ve been reprimanded a few times. If you could have seen some of the things I’ve seen with my parents, you’d think I’d turned out pretty normal!”
Lewis, says he has a squad of similarly minded rogues in camp. “Seriously, I like a laugh but I also know when to switch it on. We have this little gang at The Vale – the naughty crew. It used to be Tomos Williams, Cory Hill, Leon Brown and Elliott Dee but now Cory has gone, we’ve had Leigh Halfpenny and Dan Biggar sitting on our table. We’re trying to turn them to the dark side, but Biggs is a tough nut to crack. On the quiet, I think he wants to be the skipper of the rebels.”
Over the past two years, the players have got to know each other better than they do their families and the time in camp does have its upsides, Lewis smiles. “Some of the boys with kids like having some time off, to be honest. They’re missing feeding time, and Tomas Francis, in particular, is loving it,” he says, tongue firmly in cheek.
Away from the game, as a budding entrepreneur, Lewis has gone into business with fellow team-mate at Cardiff, Brad Thyer. Fat Dragon Coffee is brewing up a storm, and he immediately switches into his best Apprentice, mode’ “The business is going well. We are currently rebranding, getting a new website, new products. Bradley (Thyer) is holding the fort while I’m away so I’m grateful for that. Firstly though, it’s finishing the tournament with a bang, and that means getting back to winning ways against Italy.”