Find out more about the new Wales captain

Turning 21 is a landmark in anyone’s lifetime, but very few people can attest to having achieved as much as Wales’ Dafydd Jenkins by that milestone.

The Exeter Chiefs lock has a mightily impressive CV for a man of such tender age.

Read more: Wales Six Nations squad

Already a seasoned Wales U20 international, Jenkins was named Man of the Match in the 2022 BUCS Super Rugby final after his winning try ended Exeter University’s six-year spell without silverware by defeating Durham 14-13.

By that stage, Jenkins had already made his Premiership debut for Rob Baxter’s Chiefs but even bigger things were to come later that year.

Jenkins became the Premiership’s and Exeter’s youngest-ever captain when he led Chiefs to victory over London Irish in November. The following week he made his senior international debut off the bench in a defeat by Georgia. Add to the mix a first senior Six Nations and World Cup quarter-final in 2023 and it’s fair to say it’s been a whirlwind few years for the young man.

“I don’t think I’ve really had a chance to sit back and think about it because things have come so thick and fast,” Jenkins tells Rugby World. “You’re always thinking about the next game and how you’re going to win that. I haven’t really thought about it, but hopefully there are a few more things to achieve in the next few years.”

Jenkins, who is in the final year of a Sports Science degree and lives with university friends, undoubtedly deserved a bumper 21st celebration. But as we chat the day after his birthday, there is not even the slightest hint of a hangover.

He says: “I had training until about four and then I had a uni exam, so it wasn’t the best day! But I was lucky my mum came down in the evening and we chilled and had some food.” The life of a model pro. After all, you don’t surge to the top of the game by indulging in excess.

How about that World Cup then. Jenkins made Warren Gatland’s final 33 after enduring the renowned fitness sessions that dominated foreign camps in Turkey and Switzerland. But are they really as torturous as we are led to believe? “It was tough, they were just trying to break you mentally I think,” explains Jenkins.

“The one in Switzerland, we went down to train a bit lower and were living higher in altitude, but you were struggling to breathe in sessions. But a lot of the boys were in the best shape they’d ever been in, which you want going into big games. The pre-season was the toughest I’ve done. But it put us in good stead going into the tournament.”

Jenkins featured in all five of Wales’ games in France, starting the pool wins against Portugal and Georgia. Beating the Lelos would have felt nice after they denied him a first-cap win.

He featured as a replacement in the wild wins over Fiji and Australia and things were looking promising when he entered the fray in the quarter-final against Argentina in Marseille, with Wales 17-12 up and only 14 minutes left to play.

However, the Pumas scored 17 unanswered points to dump Wales out of the RWC, something Jenkins admits took some time to get over.

“It was dark after that game for a week or so. But then I was straight back in with Chiefs and you switch your mindset then. It was a tough loss to take as we thought we could do a job on them.

“We were just unlucky with that Argentina game. We took from it that we performed well (overall) but just not on that day. The next World Cup is something I really want to do in the future.”

A sense of unfinished business then. Clearly a man built, literally at 6ft 6in, for the big stage, Jenkins grew into his first Rugby World Cup.

“It was the longest time I’ve been involved with a group,” he adds. “It was nice to get to know everyone and the Welsh team is pretty young as well, so we had a lot of fun.

“Everything was so big. The crowds were bigger, the pressure was bigger. You’ve got all the cameras on you and you want to do well for your country. Everything was on a larger scale and it took a bit of getting used to, but by the end it was all good.”

The off-field highlights included the Palace of Versailles and, of course, the Eiffel Tower but this is a young man driven by the task at hand. There is precious little time for gallivanting abroad.

Now back in the swing of things in Devon, Jenkins helped the Chiefs end their travel sickness, with victory in Newcastle marking a first away league triumph for 13 months in November.

Luckily their home form has been as good as the away bad, but Jenkins says the squad is working hard to buck the trend on the road.

“If I knew what was going wrong, I’d be a rich man. We are just trying to replicate what we are doing at home, away. It shouldn’t be as hard as it is but for some reason we are struggling.

“When other teams play at home and we go to their place, they are also a lot better because everyone knows how important their home games are in this smaller (ten-team) league.

“It’s about picking up those away wins or even away points. I feel like there’s no pressure on us as a group because we are so young. We obviously want to do well for each other, but I think that’s the difference between us and other clubs: there’s no pressure on us so we can just go out and play rugby. We are relishing it.”

Dafydd Jenkins

Dafydd Jenkins running with the ball (Getty Images)

Europe is another front on which the Chiefs are looking to challenge. They made the perfect start as Henry Slade, one of the few survivors from the 2020 double-winning side, kicked a last-gasp conversion to seal a famous 19-18 win in Toulon.

“Every team wants to (win the Champions Cup) and we have some boys who know what it takes to win it,” says Jenkins. “You’d be lying if you said Europe isn’t extra special because you don’t get as many games to get to the knockouts.”

As a young captain, Jenkins admits he’s lucky the side has plenty of leaders within the group, namechecking Slade and hooker Jack Yeandle.

“It’s a privilege to lead the boys out. I’m lucky enough that we have loads of leaders like Yenz and Sladey. A load of the boys are really good at their job, so it’s really easy to manage.”

Jenkins concedes he is more vocal when given the responsibility of captaining than he would be otherwise, but he also believes it gives you additional motivation to hit performance highs on the field. “It’s more talking than I would normally do but luckily enough the boys help me out as well. I think you need to grow into the role.

“You want to perform well because if you’re saying these things to the boys, you have to go and do them. It’s something I relish and I enjoy but hopefully it doesn’t affect my game too much.”

Dafydd Jenkins on Exeter’s strong season despite player upheaval

Much has been made about the dawn of a new era for Exeter and many were surprised that the young upstarts thumped both of last season’s Premiership finalists, Saracens and Sale, at the start of the season. But Jenkins knows a lot of hard work has gone into producing good results amid a sea change in players at the club.

“It hasn’t been easy, it’s taken a lot of hard work with the boys putting in the graft in the pre-season,” he says, having watched from afar. “It is really enjoyable because everyone is so young and enthusiastic. We are experiencing these things together for the first time.”

Jenkins is one of a litany of Welsh players at Exeter, so there’s a familiar feel around the place. “Obviously with the Welsh boys down here, it’s nice to have a home from home but everyone gets along well, so it’s nice.”

Jenkins is eager to make the Six Nations squad, keen to kick on from the disappointment of 2023 when Wales finished fifth with only a 29-17 win over Italy in Rome to show for their efforts.

“I’m really excited for the Six Nations. The last one didn’t go to plan but I’m just focusing on playing well enough for Chiefs as you’ve got to get picked first. Then it’s about nailing down that starting position first as there is class competition from Beardy (Adam Beard) and Will (Rowlands).”

There is one less lock to contend with, though. He no longer has to battle with childhood hero Alun Wyn Jones after the game’s most-capped player announced his international retirement ahead of the Rugby World Cup. Jenkins counts himself lucky that last year he was able to glean some valuable information from a living legend.

“He was honestly class to work with. All the little tips he was giving me, I was trying to take on. It’s a shame I can’t do that anymore but
it was a privilege learning off him.”

While you can always improve, it now feels like the apprenticeship is over for Jenkins. Huge shoes to fill, yes, but he has what it takes to drive Wales’ engine room forward.

This article first appeared in the free Six Nations magazine in the February 2024 edition of Rugby World.

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