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FEATURE Teenage kicks

Teenage kicks
3 years ago

The rules were simple. A narrow slab of tarmac, parked cars deputising as a touchline and rows of terraced houses, where curtains would routinely twitch at the high-intensity game unfolding on a Cardiffian street. 

For hours on end, Ioan Lloyd and his two brothers, Jac and Gruff, would look to evade roughhousing by using guile, quick feet downright chicanery to gain bragging rights in an intense sibling rivalry.

Ioan, the eldest of the trio, had to use his wits to prevail and if you transport him inside the four tramlines of Ashton Gate, you can see he plays with that same sense of evasion he used in his formative years.

At just 19 years and 8 months, Lloyd is something of a wunderkind in the Gallagher Premiership. For the uninitiated, after making his debut at 18, he became Bristol’s youngest Premiership player and try scorer and has rarely been out of Pat Lam’s star-studded Bears squad since. He has trotted out on 20 occasions, mostly off the bench, but already scored six tries.

His composure and ability to play across the backline – he’s already covered left-wing, right-wing, full-back and outside-half – impressed Lam enough to offer him a four-year contract and in recent weeks, he has started repaying that faith in earnest.

Ioan Lloyd
Lloyd cuts a dash against Connacht earlier this month (THOMAS SAMSON/AFP via Getty Images)

After earning a helter-skelter first two Welsh caps off the bench against Georgia and Italy last month, Lloyd dusted himself off and showed his self-belief was in-tact with an YouTube-friendly 40m line break for Piers O’Connor’s try against Worcester Warriors, smart finishes against Clermont Auvergne and Connacht and an error-free outing against Harlequins in which he carried for 136m and left six defenders clasping at thin air.

His wil-o’-the-wisp running and composure under the high ball led respected pundit, Ugo Monye, mischievously dangling the, ‘is Lloyd a Lions bolter?’ question to his 100k followers. The conservative answer is South Africa may come a year too soon, but his participation as future tourist looks a canny punt.

12 months ago I could never have believed what has happened this year. I’m around some great players at Bristol and I’ve been very lucky with the opportunities I’ve been given. In all honesty, I’m loving every minute.

When detailing these notable achievements to the teenager in question, Lloyd swats away the attention with the ease he pulls away from leaden-footed props in the outfield, with the youngster more than aware of the learning curve he is set to embark on.

“12 months ago I could never have believed what has happened this year,” he said. “I’m around some great players at Bristol and I’ve been very lucky with the opportunities I’ve been given. In all honesty, I’m loving every minute.”

Speaking to Lloyd, who has a softer Cardiffian-brogue, than his fellow Welshman, Callum Sheedy, it’s clear he’s still trying to get to grips with such a rapid elevation, given he was running around the commodious playing fields of Clifton College barely a year ago. His L-Plates are illustrated by the fact he’s still listed as an Academy player at the Bears and not a first-team squad member.

While Lam has said Lloyd has ‘gone to another level’ in recent weeks and expects him to get ‘better and better’, Lloyd can only do his utmost to repay the vote of confidence from his judicious coach. 

“Bristol have quite a few flair players and what Pat is really good at doing is letting you express yourself. As soon as you get to understand the system he wants played, you can free yourself up to put your own twist on plays. For players like Charles Piutau and Callum Sheedy, it gives them freedom to try things.”

Ioan Lloyd
Lloyd comes under the close attention of Italy’s Marco Zanon Maxime Mbanda
(Photo by GEOFF CADDICK/AFP via Getty Images)

Lloyd’s cameo against Italy last month, after coming on the for the injured Liam Williams, was a bumpy ride. As a callow youth, he was sat back on his rump trying to tackle Sebastien Negri before being skittled by Italy’s South African backrow, Johan Mayer, as the last line of defence. His defensive positioning for Carlo Canna’s score was also naive.

Fortunately, the grounded full-back took his Test bow for what it was; a learning experience. “I was smashed about a bit because it was a noticeable step up from Premiership Rugby. Playing at Test level allowed me to see where I’m at in terms of my rugby. I came back to Bristol knowing which parts of my game I need to work on…which is everything.”

I’d be here all day if you wanted me to explain how much I learnt from Liam (Williams) and Leigh (Halfpenny) on a daily basis. They are both world class players and the help they gave me was immeasurable.

Lloyd felt the month in camp with the Wales squad could only be seen as beneficial, especially given the rarefied company he was routinely rubbing shoulders with.

“I’d be here all day if you wanted me to explain how much I learnt from Liam (Williams) and Leigh (Halfpenny) on a daily basis. They are both world class players and the help they gave me was immeasurable. Just having Leigh around to pick his brains and ask him his thought processes was unbelievable. Positionally, they’re always a couple of phases ahead of the game, so when that kick does come into the backfield, they’ll sweep up, or when the attack does get on the outside, they’ll make sure they’re in the right defensive position. It’s definitely something I haven’t mastered yet.”

Such self-deprecation is to be expected but Lloyd comes from solid rugby stock; a third-generation rugby player, his cousin plays for Merthyr and his two brothers are on the radar of Bristol’s Academy. He spent his childhood in Waterloo Gardens, Roath, obsessed with the game, gorging on any digital learning he could find. As an indication of the player he’d aspire to be, he looks to 12,000 miles away, and the NRL’s premier hot-stepper. “I still watch a lot of rugby, from both codes but the player I used to obsess over was Shaun Johnson. He’s ridiculous. I’ve watched every single highlights reel of his and would watch him to get pumped the night before a game.”

When talking to Lloyd you need to remind yourself of his youth. When he entered the world, Welsh rockers, The Stereophonics were at No 1 with Mr Writer, and Graham Henry was in his final months as Wales coach. When Lloyd was just five, Alun Wyn Jones was already thundering across the turf out in Argentina. 

Ioan Lloyd
Lloyd goes over in the corner against Sale Sharks (Photo by Alex Davidson/Getty Images)

It’s unsurprising then that Lloyd still feels like a starstruck teenager because that’s what he is, albeit one with obvious gifts. “I knew that everyone was going to be class in the Wales camp because until recently, watching Wales was the highlight of my year. I love learning off players like Dan Biggar, who is a proper competitor. I was genuinely pinching myself everyday thinking, ‘how the hell am I standing next to these people?’ Being around players I’ve grown up watching will never sink in. I try and justify it myself by saying, ‘it’s only rugby, we’re playing the same game but it’s hard.’”

Lloyd will soon be the one welcoming other newbies into camp because he is no competition winner, no imposter with three feathers on his chest. His recent performances suggest he could be a fixture on the Test scene for some time. The next big poser for him, and the Welsh public, is where he’ll settle position-wise. “I think my ball-playing ability comes from the fact I’ve played most of my rugby at fly-half. I still train there most of the time and still see myself as a 10. At the same time, I love playing at 15, and getting on the pitch. There are certain non-negotiables with certain positions but I’m happy to play wherever for the Bears. I’m not restricted to the backfield at 15, and at 10, you don’t have to be at first-receiver. There are players who can switch from 10 to 15 and back quite easily, like Beauden Barrett and Rhys Patchell.”

There are so many world-class players at the Bears. Semi (Radradra) is funny, a very bubbly character, a great bloke to have around the club. What he does on the field speaks for itself.

Lloyd’s pace and footwork, has seen him with a No 11 on his back in recent weeks and for now, he’s more than happy to keep nurturing his game understanding. “Playing on the wing  helps me learning-wise. Getting to see the game from a different position is really useful to my development. Whether I’m at 10 or 15, I’ll have an appreciation of what other players are trying to bring to the game.”

As Lam has alluded, being surround by such quality has fast-tracked Lloyd’s development in the last 13 months to the point he is rapidly being seen as player the Bears can trust week-in, week-out.

There are so many world-class players at the Bears”, Lloyd says. “Semi (Radradra) is funny, a very bubbly character, a great bloke to have around the club. What he does on the field speaks for itself. Then there’s Charles (Piutau) and Max (Malins), who go out of their way to help everybody out.”

Ioan Lloyd
Lloyd scans the field in the game against Bath in October 2019 (Photo by Harry Trump/Getty Images)

The ability, at such a young age, to mix with people from all backgrounds, is a huge boon to Lloyd’s burgeoning character. Until 16, he had spent all his life in Cardiff but the move to Clifton College, after a meeting between his father Byron and the College’s head of sport, Matt Salter, opened up his eyes to a wider world.

“The decision wasn’t solely rugby based, at that age. I knew I couldn’t put all my eggs into one basket. It was about life experience and the opportunities I could get from that. I was thinking about the people I could meet. At the start I had my reservations but when I came and had a look around, I was like ‘wow’ – the facilities at the school are unbelievable. Don’t get me wrong, I loved my time at Glantaf but it was hard to turn down.”

Lloyd’s feet are firmly planted on terra firma, but his talent means he is set to take his footwork far beyond the back streets of his beloved Cardiff.

More stories from Owain Jones

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