The Scarlets, Wales and Lions hooker reflects on memorable moments from his career
Ken Owens’s Life in Pictures
There were 18 months between Ken Owens receiving his first Wales call-up and making his Test debut, but he’s certainly achieved a lot in the decade since.
The Scarlets hooker has been to three World Cups, won three Six Nations titles and played more than 250 times for his region.
Here the front-rower reflects on significant moments from his journey from Carmarthen Athletic to the international stage.
Ken Owens’s Life in Pictures
1999 – Early days
“My father played for Carmarthen Athletic and I was going there since I was born, then I started joining in at five or six. This is in 1998-99 – that year I took part in an official event before the World Cup in Wales.
“I played all my mini, junior and youth rugby there. The only one I haven’t got is a first-team appearance. I’d love to play a couple of first-team games – my cousin plays there – but I can’t quite see me doing a full season.
“I get down as much as I can. If it wasn’t for the people at the club, who sacrificed their time, I would not have achieved what I have.”
2009 – Up and running
“I was Man of the Match in this game at Quins, and my head of sixth form, Tim Hayes, was ref.
“I was called up to the Barbarians at the end of that season before Wales’ tour to New Zealand and for my profile pic they used this photo or a similar one and stuck it on the body of someone else!”
2010 – Corner stop
“This was an interesting week. I was called up to train with Wales, then got released to go to Dublin to play this game (against Leinster). I hadn’t had much time with the boys but we’d spoken about filling the field.
“From a scrum, Rhys Priestland put in a chip kick, Andy Fenby picked up the ball, then there were a couple of offloads, hands, hands, hands, we moved the ball.
“I managed to get on David Lyons’s shoulder, I thought he’d show and go but he gave it to me. I only had ten metres to run, I’d not done any of the hard work, but I got Try of the Season.”
2010 – Snap happy
“I’d sat on the bench against France that year and didn’t get on, then I went on the summer tour to New Zealand, which was my first experience of being with Wales properly as the Six Nations was an in and out type of thing. It was great to be away with the boys and see how it all works.
“This was before the first Test in Dunedin. I was having a bit of fun with Ben (Evans, photographer), saying how easy his job was.
“Deiniol (Jones) is behind me, he looked after me in the Six Nations, and Bradley (Davies), who I grew up playing with. It was a great tour, even though I didn’t play.”
2011 – Up to speed
“I’m pushing Sam (Warburton) in conditioning here! He was probably a little understated leading up to the World Cup but he’d become a regular, Matthew Rees got injured, Sam was given the opportunity to captain Wales.
“This was my first World Cup. I was chuffed to get my first cap against Namibia. It was a great two months; we became everyone’s second team with the way we played.
“I didn’t realise until I came home how much people got into the World Cup and the joy we brought to people.
“It was a great thing to be part of and I was proud to get my first cap. We had a talented squad and went on to win the Grand Slam.”
2012 – High emotions
“I’m not sure what had happened here. I think Gethin Jenkins may have turned the ball over but maybe I’d hit the ruck slightly like I shouldn’t have so me and Imanol Harinordoquy may have had a bit of a disagreement.
“Yanto (Ian Evans) is pulling me back, knowing we don’t want to give a penalty away, but it’s just emotion on the rugby field. We had a beer after the game. That photo actually has pride of place in my old man’s garage.
“It was a strange tournament. Matthew Rees had a groin strain, so I played against Ireland and Scotland, then Huw Bennett tore his Achilles and I started against England. My first start and we won the Triple Crown. Matthew Rees came back for Italy and France.
“It was great to be involved and get experience. Having watched the 2005 and 2008 Grand Slams, to be part of that was good.”
2013 – On a roll
“We started that Six Nations on a run of seven Test defeats and then lost against Ireland, but we finished that game strong and kept building momentum. We beat France, Italy and Scotland in our away games, then had to beat England by seven to win the title.
“It was 9-3 at half-time but then Alex Cuthbert got a couple of tries – one came from good turnover work but they cut the clip just after that; it doesn’t upset me much!
“It was a great day being at home, having been written off and then winning the championship by blowing England away (30-3). It was a great year to be part of and Hibbs (Richard Hibbard) is there celebrating too. He’s a good mate and was on fire that tournament. He started and I came off the bench and had a bit of an impact.”
2013 – Body blow
“This was at the end of the season in the semi-final against Ulster. I remember going into a ruck and George Earle caught me on the sweet spot. The way my neck had gone I had quite a bit of nerve damage down my left side, which meant I ended up missing Wales’ summer tour to Japan.
“It was quite a worrying time, being stretchered off, but it’s part of the game. I lost strength in my left side and it took four months to get back, but it was through the summer so was almost like being in pre-season. All in all, I’d say I’ve been lucky with injury in my career.
“It’s devastating to hear what Alix Popham, who I played with, and Steve Thompson, who I made my debut against for the Scarlets, are going through. It is a concern but the game is much safer now than it was, we are learning a lot more. There’s more education and knowledge than the early days of professionalism.”
2015 – Pressure match
“I’d come back from injury that year and they only took two hookers, so I was really happy to go to my second World Cup.
“We were in the ‘pool of death’ and that was our first big test. Getting that win against England, beating them at their home World Cup, took the pressure off.
“We were under the pump for the first 50 or 60 minutes, but then Gareth Davies scored a try and Dan Biggar put over a penalty from halfway.
“I remember the lineout when everyone said Chris Robshaw should have gone for the posts, and I’ve never been so happy to see Geoff Parling take the ball at the front because it’s the easiest place to defend. We piled in as much as we could and got them over the touchline.”
2017 – All singing
“I got my 50th cap in the 100-minute match against France (that Wales lost 20-18). We had a lot of injuries and Scott Baldwin had to come on in the back row but then ended up going off too, so I had to play the full stint.
“Afterwards, Dennis Gethin gave me the cockerel he’d been presented with by the French union. I also got a cap with ‘50th’ and my name on it, as well as my cap number on the back, so it’s more personal than your first one.
“The anthem means a lot to me. If you listen to the words it’s all about the people of Wales, the people you’re representing, so I always sing it full out. It’s the one time no one can tell me to shut up because I’m tone deaf.”
2017 – Trophy hunting
“I’d damaged ligaments in my foot against France and not realised, but the week of the Pro12 semi-final I damaged it again. I was devastated not to play in the final, but we were all close and the non-23 went over (to Dublin) too.
“We had started the season dreadfully, losing four or five on the bounce. I remember saying to the analyst, ‘We’ll win the next 20 games on the bounce and win the league’. After the final, he came up to me and said, ‘It was 19 games’!”
2017 – Badge of honour
“Unbelievable. This was my first game for the Lions (against the Blues) and I’d only just made the tour – Gats (Warren Gatland) gave me every opportunity to get fit and thankfully I did.
“I was outside the team room before the team announcement and he said, ‘Do you want to be captain?’ I said, ‘Yes’. He walked off like he does and I was thinking, ‘What just happened there?’
“For me to be part of the tour and play for the Lions and captain the Lions was just a different level. For a small club in West Wales, Carmarthen Athletic has a pretty proud history with the Lions – Delme Thomas, Roy Bergiers, Gerald Davies and Alun Thomas have all played. I’m pretty certain I’m the only one to captain the Lions and it was an unbelievable experience.
“Look at the players in the photo, it’s ridiculous. Dan Cole, Maro Itoje, Courtney Lawes, CJ Stander… Just being in that room on that day is something I’ll remember forever.”
2019 – Grand day out
“Evan (his son) enjoys going to the rugby but I’m not sure how much he watches!
“That second Grand Slam, third Six Nations title, is my favourite trophy I’ve won with Wales.
“I started four of five games and was a bigger part of the championship, so that meant a lot to have him on the field and experience walking round in front of 80,000 people. That’s why you play the game, for moments like that.
“I’d like him to play a team sport; it’s given me a career and so much more. Whatever level you play, sport gives you life skills and a network of people. But as long as he’s happy that’s the main thing.”
2019 – Tough going
“Devastating. We’re walking back from going over to see our families (after losing to South Africa in the RWC 2019 semi-final). So near yet so far.
“We had a pretty good record against South Africa and it’s the realisation that it’s the end of the road for that World Cup.
“The shift Alun Wyn (Jones) had put in, the full 80. I’d gone 70-odd. We were building nicely through the tournament but didn’t quite have enough and lost by three.
“I want to keep playing as long as I can and as long as I enjoy it. And I wouldn’t be surprised if Alun Wyn is still playing for Wales at 40 or something ridiculous.”
2020 – Landmark game
“I knew I was coming up to getting 250 appearances for my home region but I had to wait about five months for it (because of Covid). Having been told I wouldn’t be good enough to play one game it was nice to prove some people wrong.
“I’m the second person to do it at regional level for the Scarlets after Phil John and it’s a great milestone. It means a lot to me. I’m from the area and still live here.
“We got a good win (41-20 v the Dragons) but it was a shame we didn’t have a crowd there.”
2020 – Man on the mic
“I had a run on Clwb Rygbi (in the Autumn Nations Cup) and it’s nice to be able to do it now and again, to keep my hand in and options open.
“It can be difficult but I try to give a different perspective, what players and coaches are thinking. Especially during the autumn, there was a bit of criticism, but I’d try to give people the perspective from inside of why it’s not going right instead of finding blame.
“I’d like to stay within the game day-to-day if I could (after retiring). I wouldn’t like to go into coaching, maybe administration. I’ve done a lot with the players’ association and a lot of players have different experiences and could add a lot of value to rugby going forward.”
This article originally appeared in the February 2021 edition of Rugby World magazine.
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