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FEATURE The making of Jac Morgan

The making of Jac Morgan
9 months ago

Max Boyce famously told of a mythical factory “built beneath the mountain, beneath the coal and clay … where we make the outside halves, that’ll play for Wales one day”.

Cwmtwrch RFC have slightly tweaked the narrative.

Their ground can be reached via a steep hill. There are the trees all around and then an expanse of lush and inviting rugby turf. “It’s like climbing to heaven,” laughs club chairman Tom Addey.

Oh, and Cwmtwrch have played a key role in the making of new joint Wales captain and openside Jac Morgan.

They have also helped shine up another outstanding breakaway in 18-year-old Morgan Morse, a youngster Addey has compared to a young Wayne ‘Buck’ Shelford, such is his ball carrying ability, with two or three opponents often required to bring him down.

Cwmtwrch seem to have found the formula, then, to produce back-row forwards who’ll go a long way.

But today the brief is to look at Morgan.

The first thing that strikes anyone who meets the new Wales co-skipper for the first time is his grounded nature. After a man-of-the-match performance for Wales last autumn, he came down to the mixed zone at the Principality Stadium for interviews. Everyone who put a microphone or micro-cassette recorder beneath his nose was treated with the utmost respect, from students who were training in radio work to journalists and broadcasters who’d been in the reporting game for 30 or so years.

Jac Morgan
Morgan had one of his best games in a Welsh shirt against England in the World Cup warm-ups (Photo by David Rogers/Getty Images)

You slipped out into the night feeling that, very definitely, a stash of T-shirts with ‘I’m great’ emblazoned across the front wouldn’t be found in any chest of drawers in the Morgan household.

Does such stuff matter? It matters if you believe in the old theory that character is destiny – that your personality will shape your life, for good or ill.

Morgan gets on with people, has no ego and is respected. Those things are important for a leader.

Addey sums him up nicely, saying: “He’s a bloody lovely kid.

“On the day he and Dewi Lake were announced as Wales’ World Cup captains, Jac did his press work, then went to Clive Rowlands’ funeral and came back to spend a couple of hours in our club with his dad, Rhodri.

Once, the fly-half was the role most Welsh schoolboys wanted to fill, perhaps inspired by the deeds of greats such Barry John, Phil Bennett and Jonathan Davies, Magic Circle members all. But the picture has changed

“He hasn’t forgotten his roots.

“He’ll often pop in to see how everyone’s doing.”

What to think?

Once, fly-half was the role most Welsh schoolboys wanted to fill, perhaps inspired by the deeds of greats such Barry John, Phil Bennett and Jonathan Davies, Magic Circle members all.

But the picture has changed.

Jac Morgan
Morgan scored his first try for Wales against Georgia, whom Wales face at the World Cup in France (Photo by Harry Trump/Getty Images)

Openside has become Welsh rugby’s glamour position over the past couple of decades, with a trio of authentic greats in Martyn Williams, Sam Warburton and Justin Tipuric acting as all-action role models for those of school age. Chronologically the first of the threesome, Williams was creative and blessed with marvellous rugby instincts, while some opposition teams could have been forgiven for thinking the only way to shift an in-form Warburton off the ball would have been to shell him and send in the infantry.

And for Wales Tipuric embodied so much of the flair and excitement of the international game – a scrum-capped force of nature, in the action at almost every turn, offering a threat in the wide channels while also being a world-class lineout forward and a defender who never tired.

Morgan has a touch of all three in his game. His awareness allowed him to pop up in the loose and cut inside to set up Gareth Davies’ try against England in the summer series opener in Cardiff, while his low centre of gravity and courage means he’ll always pose a threat at the breakdown and he doesn’t yield in defence: even when South Africa had 52 points on the board recently he was still making his tackles. He has also improved his carrying out of all recognition. Again, his compact frame helps in that respect, packed as it is with power and fuelled by immense determination.

But he is far from a retread.

He is very much his own man, with his own personality, and he takes responsibility.

As the boys got a bit older, they’d like a crafty pint here and there, but not Jac. He was always on the water. He was so dedicated. He didn’t drink beer.

Bertie Roberts, Cwmtwrch age-grade coach

Rewind to the U20 Six Nations game between Wales and Scotland at Colwyn Bay in 2020. The hosts were comprehensively outplayed as they fell to a 52-17 defeat. Despite the difficulties the side faced on the night, the No. 8 Morgan Strong emerged with a lot of credit after a relentlessly committed carrying and tackling show, but the Welsh standout was Morgan, who achieved three turnovers, put in 16 tackles and averaged six metres a carry. It wasn’t enough to turn the tide, but the captain’s defiance was admirable that evening in north Wales. Here was a young player who recognised the importance of setting an example to his team-mates.

Nor was it the first time for Morgan to demonstrate such a trait. “He captained Cwmtwrch U13s and we knew as soon as the opposition would put the ball up in the air, nine times out of 10 it would be Jac underneath it,” says the club’s respected age-grade coach Bertie Roberts.

“It wouldn’t just be about nerve to make the catch. He’d also know where the ball would go.”

Like Warburton at a young age, Morgan stood apart almost as much for what he didn’t do as what he did do. “As the boys got a bit older, they’d like a crafty pint here and there, but not Jac. He was always on the water. He was so dedicated. He didn’t drink beer,” says Roberts.”

Jac Morgan
Jac Morgan straps up ahead of a game against England at Twickenham (Photo by David Rogers/Getty Images)

Even so, no career is a straight line and Morgan’s progression involved the odd diversion. “He was never chosen in the Ospreys’ pathways,”  continues Roberts. “He went to play for Amman United Youth and ended up in Aberavon.”

In between, there was some time in the Scarlets’ academy, with the former Ysgol Dyffryn Aman pupil all the while pursuing an engineering apprenticeship with a Llansamlet-based company, Morganite Electrical Carbon Limited.

But it was his time with Aberavon that allowed him to get his rugby firmly on the right track.

From the get-go, he made a good impression. “He came across as an exceptional person,” says Aberavon RFC coach Jason Hyatt.

“When we met him initially, we spoke about how we could help him fulfil his rugby ambitions and what we could do for him. His only question was ‘how can I make Aberavon a better place?’

“He didn’t want to know how much game-time he’d have, he didn’t want to know who he was up against, he didn’t want to know what we could do for him in terms of finance.

“Jac’s only concern was how he could help Aberavon to get better.

Jac just said and did the right things when he was with us, even having a quiet word with the broadcasters at one point, asking them to make sure they put Aberavon next to his name as well as the Scarlets. It was only a small point, but it said a lot.

Jason Hyatt, Aberavon RFC coach

“I remember coming out of the meeting and saying: ‘He’s going to go far in the game.’

“We played him up in Merthyr against a strong home pack but Jac didn’t take a backward step. He was outstanding and he carried on in that vein throughout his time with us.

“He just said and did the right things when he was with us, even having a quiet word with the broadcasters at one point, asking them to make sure they put Aberavon next to his name as well as the Scarlets.

“It was only a small point, but it said a lot.”

Hyatt adds: “Jac brings the best out of others.

“It’s why I think he’ll be a big success as a Wales captain.

“He’s very respectful of people and he enjoyed playing in the Premiership. People knock the league, but it has a role to play and can act as a safety net for people who might have slipped through the net.”

Jac Morgan Justin Tipuric
Morgan has benefitted from being in the same environment as Wales great Justin Tipuric (Photo by Athena Pictures/Getty Images)

That said, Morgan will take nothing for granted. He has played consistently well in senior rugby for several seasons – first with the Scarlets and then with the Ospreys – but there are two other quality No. 7s in Wales’ World Cup set-up in Tommy Reffell and Taine Basham.

Reffell is the breakdown thief, a master pilferer of opposition possession who impressed even the Springboks when Wales toured South Africa in 2022, while Basham is nimble on his feet, predatory at the breakdown and TNT explosive when it comes to the not unimportant matter of taking the ball forward.

But Morgan’s efforts in recent games mean he will head for France holding the jersey.

How good a player can he become?

“I see him as a sort of Welsh version of the former Australia flanker George Smith,” says his former Ospreys and Wales team-mate Scott Baldwin, now coaching at Newcastle Falcons.

“It’s a big comparison to make and Jac obviously has a long way to go, while what also marked George Smith out was the amount of time he spent at the highest level.

Maybe Jac has a bit more power in terms of his ball carrying – that explosiveness to break tackles, like George Smith. He has a low centre of gravity and makes it count when he takes play forward.

Scott Baldwin, former Wales hooker

“But Jac is similar in the way he plays and how he pulls out big moments.

“We all know how good the No. 7s who have come before him with Wales have been. Sam Warburton was a different athlete and Tips (Justin Tipuric) has so many things that make him different.

“Maybe Jac has a bit more power in terms of his ball carrying – that explosiveness to break tackles, like George Smith. He has a low centre of gravity and makes it count when he takes play forward.

“But he’s also very good over the ball.

“I don’t think he realises how good a player he could be.”

Jac Morgan
Morgan has a low-slung power that has seen comparisons with George Smith (Photo by Stu Forster/Getty Images)

Baldwin wasn’t surprised when Gatland handed Morgan the captaincy during Wales’ summer series. “You could see during the Six Nations that Gats was teeing him up,” said Baldwin.

“At the end of meetings, he would say: ‘Jac, do you have anything to say?’

“Gats is pretty good at picking Wales captains and especially ones who play with a 7 on their backs.”

Morgan will not let all the compliments go to his head. That isn’t the way it’s done in Brynamman. “He’s not in the least big headed,” says Baldwin. “If anything he under-talks his ability.”

Expect plenty of others to talk and write a lot about Jac Morgan in the coming weeks, months and years, though.

And every opponent will respect the quiet warrior who’ll co-captain Wales in the campaign ahead.

His ascent is only just beginning.

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