Joe Hawkins has gone from Wales U20 captain to senior international in a matter of months

Joe Hawkins will forever cherish the day Wales blew a 21-point lead to lose to Australia and put the final nail in Wayne Pivac’s coffin.

While the majority of the 67,401 watching at Principality Stadium will be eager to erase the final 22 minutes of Wales’ autumn from their memory, as a 34-13 cushion rapidly became a 39-34 loss, it will always be the occasion of the Ospreys centre’s first senior cap.

Just 137 days after captaining  Wales U20 in their Six Nations Summer Series final defeat to South Africa and having made just six starts for the Ospreys, Hawkins wore the No 12 against Dave Rennie’s Wallabies.

Read more: Wales Six Nations squad

A knee injury to Owen Watkin prompted Pivac to entrust his shirt to the ball-playing 20-year-old, who repaid his faith with a solid show in midfield in what proved to be the coach’s last game in charge. Nine days later, the WRU reappointed Warren Gatland after a year that included Wales’ first-ever loss to Georgia and a Six Nations defeat to Italy.

One New Zealander for another, Pivac was removed for his predecessor and Wales’ most successful coach, whose glittering 12-year spell in charge ended after the fourth-place finish at the 2019 World Cup. 

Hawkins, while permanently grateful for the opportunity afforded to him by the former Scarlets coach, now does not know where he stands.

“On a personal level, I’m pretty pleased with my first cap and the performance. It’s never going to be perfect, and there were a few mistakes, but overall I was quite happy,” he readily explains.

“But then obviously the contrast of that was the final result after we’d opened up a bit of a gap. The way it went in the last 15 minutes wasn’t great, but I’ll always remember it as a good day, winning my first cap.”

Related: Wales Six Nations fixtures

Hawkins did not expect to be called up to the squad, let alone debut for his country in the autumn, and thinks his versatility helped catch the eye despite his relative inexperience regionally.

Joe Hawkins Wales

Joe Hawkins celebrates his winning kick for Wales U20 against Italy in the Six Nations Summer Series (INPHO)

“I’ll always appreciate what Wayne did by picking me. It’s never nice to see anyone lose their job but results play a factor at international level and that’s the way things have panned out.

“The selection in the wider squad was a bit unexpected as I hadn’t played loads of minutes for the Ospreys. I like to ball-play on the field as a centre. I think what Wayne saw was my ability to play both ten and 12 if needed, offering something a bit different and I’ll always be grateful to him.

Related: Where are sides preparing for the Six Nations?

“I’ve never had any contact with Warren. It’s a bit of an unknown now for me. Wayne obviously liked what I was capable of but I’ve got to get the performances right at Ospreys and if Warren likes what he sees, hopefully I will be able to get back in the squad.”

There is no shortage of motivation with a blockbuster 2023 in store. “I don’t just want to be a one-cap international,” adds Hawkins. “I’ll continue training and playing hard to get in the Six Nations squad. There’s a World Cup at the end of the year too which would be unbelievable. If I control what I can then all of that will hopefully just fall into place.”

Joe Hawkins Wales

Joe Hawkins carries the ball into contact on his senior Wales debut against Australia (INPHO)

Hawkins grew up playing fly-half at Pontardawe RFC, with a stint at Neath Athletic, before shifting out one when he progressed into the Ospreys academy. He showed off his monster boot in the summer with a clutch 45m penalty at the death to help Wales U20 beat hosts Italy and secure their place in the Summer Series final. 

A Welsh centre who can cover fly-half with a big boot. Where have you heard that before? You could have been forgiven for thinking the lad from Ystalyfera, north-east of Swansea, might have grown up idolising Welsh rugby icon Gavin Henson.

Related: WRU chief executive Steve Phillips resigns

However, you have to look a bit further afield for Hawkins’s favourite player in his youth, one that eventually went on to wear the red rose of England.

“There have been some greats over the years for Wales, some of the boys I trained with like Alun Wyn Jones, Justin Tipuric and George North, I grew up watching on TV. But I used to love Sam Burgess in the NRL; I really enjoyed watching him play.”

Joe Hawkins Wales

Joe Hawkins signs autographs for fans at Principality Stadium after his Wales debut (INPHO)

So were there any split loyalties when league convert Burgess lined up in his position against Wales in the group stage of the 2015 World Cup in England?

“Obviously I always want Wales to win whoever is playing, but it was exciting to see Sam come over to union,” assures Hawkins, who spent his teenage summers playing stand-off for league side West Wales Raiders and counts another code-hopper in Sonny Bill Williams among his inspirations.

Things famously didn’t go Burgess’s or England’s way on that ill-fated day, but they are falling nicely into place for Hawkins who will make his Six Nations bow at inside centre against Ireland.

This interview first appeared in the February 2023 issue of Rugby World

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