It has become a cliche among Welsh rugby fans that the fly-half position is the area in which the rugby gods bless their nation. It is a blessing for Wales to have ever been in the position of choosing between Barry John and Phil Bennett. For a generation, everyone in Wales wanted to be a silky-smooth inside back. But somewhere in the late noughties, that changed. Thanks to a certain Martyn Williams being Wales’ first world-class breakdown operator, he became an idol for impressionable young rugby fans.
Inspired by the likes of Williams, George Smith and Richie McCaw, this trend was prolonged by Sam Warburton and Justin Tipuric. Eleven years on from Tipuric’s first cap, Wales find themselves spoilt for choice throughout the back-row. With former Lions Dan Lydiate, Josh Navidi, Ross Moriarty and Taulupe Faletau all available – injury permitting – to Wales, the breakdown is not an issue for Wayne Pivac’s men. The likes of Aaron Wainwright, James Botham and Taine Basham only strengthen this department. There is, however, one man who has the potential to rise above all of these star names. That man is Ellis Jenkins, and he is one of the most gifted openside flankers playing the game.
Jenkins is important to Wales in a multitude of ways. He works efficiently as either an edge forward or working in a group, he has silky skills in the wide channels and his thieving skills are so exceptional he wouldn’t look out of place in The Italian Job. Above all, Wales need natural leaders. With the ever durable skipper Alun-Wyn Jones injured for the Six Nations campaign, there is a vacant position for Wales captaincy. Having captained Wales for part of the Autumn, Jenkins is increasingly looking the front-runner for this role.
Injury to a player as totemic as Jones is never a good thing, but it may be a blessing in disguise for Wayne Pivac. Contrary to his mythical status, he won’t be able to play for Wales forever, so it’s about time they learned to plan ahead for a world without him. With the monumental Adam Beard stepping up as a leader and world-class lock, half the job is done. If Jenkins is given the armband moving forwards, this could be beneficial for Wales.
Many would say, it’s about time Jenkins was made skipper regardless of Jones’ injury; this would allow Pivac the ability to substitute the lock after 60 minutes with no real disruption to his side, plus allowing Jones to merely focus on his own V12 engine. Jenkins is a natural leader of men, with the confidence, inner-resolve and class to take him to the heights of Siya Kolisi or Michael Hooper.
Now – as stated earlier, Ellis Jenkins is one of the world’s great pilferers on the deck, but because of his recent two-year knee injury lay-off, it can be easy to forget. Let’s have a look at the form he’s shown post-recovery, and what makes him so exceptional.
The following example comes from Cardiff’s recent home tie against Toulouse;
As shown on the above image, Seb Davies gets a decent scrag-tackle on Toulouse’s Maxime Medard. Typically, as the assist-tackler, Jenkins would aim to drag Medard back to gain some yards, but instead, he pushes Medard to the floor, which the Toulouse support players are not expecting.
Post-tackle, Jenkins’ left knee hits the floor for half a second, but otherwise remains on his feet at all times. He has effectively capitalised on Davies’ tackle by opening up a corridor for himself to attack the ball. He shows the referee a clear release by lifting his arms, but still keeping them below the Toulouse support players, giving him a positional advantage to attack the ball.
Jenkins gets his hands to the ball and maintains a strong body position, meaning France’s heavyweight flankers Francois Cros and Anthony Jelonch can’t clear him out. The referee awards a penalty to Cardiff for holding on.
Now, let’s have a look at an exceptional piece of defence by Jenkins in a Wales shirt in 2021. The following clip is from the 48th minute of Wales’ Autumn test against South Africa, with Wales defending the 14th phase of Springbok attack inside the Welsh 22.
Here, Jenkins goes for a low shot on Damien De Allende. Seemingly, his motive isn’t to win the ball here, but instead to stop a world-class carrier in his tracks. If he gets a clean shot on De Allende, he can leave Ryan Elias (left) and Rhys Carre (right) to potentially jackal the ball.
Jenkins and De Allende meet solidly – both provide a strong first impact, and the Springbok begins to drive his legs, attempting to get some purchase out of the Wales flanker. As the human skyscraper Lood De Jager latches onto his centre, Jenkins angles De Allende’s right shoulder towards the floor.
Jenkins anticipates De Allende transferring the ball to his left arm, closer to the supporting De Jager. By the time the centre drops his knee to the floor, Jenkins has pulled off a one-handed strip. Look at Jenkins’ midriff area on the above photo – he has stolen the ball without South Africa really noticing.
This passage of play results in Wales booting the ball downfield to a disorganised Springbok backfield, and Aaron Wainwright winning a turnover penalty on first phase, inside the Springbok half.
We’ve looked at one breakdown turnover and one open-play strip, so let’s focus on one more example of Jenkins’ turnover skills. The following example comes from Wales’ Autumn game against Fiji, in which Jenkins was skipper.
On the above photo, Jenkins appears to be offside, but Fiji scrum-half Frank Lomani has his hands on the ball. With the popularisation of “caterpillar” rucks, referees at the highest level have changed their interpretation of when the ball is out. Now, regardless of whether the ball is lifted, if hands are on the ball, the defence can advance. Jenkins uses this to his advantage and begins to rush up.
Jenkins always keeps his eyes on Lomani. If he overshoots, the scrum-half will merely dart around the fringes and aim to make ground himself. Instead, Jenkins doesn’t enter Lomani’s eyeline until the last second, at which point he is already throwing the pass.
Jenkins intercepts the ball and makes a fantastic scrum-half look daft. He then finds a weak shoulder opposite two gigantic Fijian forwards and throws an offload to Thomas Young, attempting to keep the ball alive while Fiji are transitioning to defence.
Jenkins is not only a talented breakdown nause and an inspiring leader. He is a figurehead for his team at any level. His knowledge of the game is outstanding, and he rarely gets penalised considering how many ballsy plays he attempts. Even when Wales’ greatest-ever lock Alun-Wyn Jones returns from his injury, Jenkins is the man to lead his country into the 2023 Rugby World Cup.
It may be easy to underestimate 28-year-old Jenkins, but he is Wales’ most important back-row forward right now, which takes some doing. Wayne Pivac is blessed with a plethora of options, but only one is cut from the same cloth as Richie McCaw and David Pocock.