FOR all the talk of Wales needing to expand their player pool ahead of Japan 2019, one of their players of the Six Nations was uncapped when he travelled to New Zealand for the World Cup six years ago.
Ken Owens will lead out the teams in Paris this afternoon when he wins his 50th cap and the Scarlets hooker has finally established himself at the heart of the front row.
In 2011 he was the beneficiary of injuries to Matthew Rees and Richard Hibbard to get the call-up for the World Cup where he was back-up to Huw Bennett and Lloyd Burns, making his Test debut as a replacement against Namibia.
He featured four times in the Grand Slam success the following year, making his first start in the stunning late win at Twickenham, but Owens has had to get used to wearing 16 rather than 2.
Of his 49 caps, 18 have been starts and most of them have been this season.
Owens got the nod against New Zealand in Auckland last summer and started all three Tests against the World champions.
His performances have not only kept his starting spot for Wales – the November Test against Japan the only one he has missed out on – but thrust him towards being a leading candidate for the Lions tour to face the All Blacks.
The 30-year-old is doing the nuts and bolts of the lineout and scrum well, carrying with gusto and putting in some telling tackles. Most onlookers believe he is in the form of his career, but the west Walian isn’t one for blowing his own trumpet.
“I am not sure,” he said. “I am not doing a lot different to what I was doing before, perhaps I am a lot more consistent at the moment.
“I like to think I am having a decent run. It is probably the best run of form I’ve had at international level from a starting point of view.
“I am pretty happy. The set-piece has gone well, and it is just nice to have a consistent run of games starting. I think that has helped me.
“I work hard and try to take my chances when they come, and thankfully, I am playing okay at the moment. I’ve just to keep it going now.”
Owens is providing energy around the paddock but would bring a smile to the face of forwards coach Robin McBryde, himself a former Wales hooker, with the declaration of his priorities.
“It’s still about the basics. If you can’t throw and you can’t scrummage, there is no point being on the field,” he said.
“Hooker has perhaps become an extra back-rower in one sense, with ball skills and carrying.
“From when I first started playing to now, the game is pretty much unrecognisable. There is a huge difference, and year on year it changes.
“As a player, you can’t sit still. Things that perhaps you were good at two years ago, you have got to improve, and improve in different areas to make sure you are moving with the game.”
And Owens knows that he will have to be on top form today when up against arguably Europe’s best hooker, Toulon’s Guilhem Guirado.
“I’ve played a lot against him. We were the same age grade, and I played against him first at 18 or 19 years of age,” said Owens.
“He’s a great hooker. I’ve played against him twice this season for the Scarlets against Toulon, and he is one of the best hookers in the world at the moment.
“It’s going to be a massive test. He is right on top of his game.”
Guirado will be saying the same about Owens.