Wily Welsh Ken Owens ready for his biggest Lions Test yet

Hooker has been called into Gatland’s first XV for Saturday’s Springboks decider

Ken Owens has been there and bought the t-shirt. Since making his international debut almost a decade ago, he has played 86 Tests, taken part in three World Cups, including a quarter-final and semi-final, and been a part of two Grand Slams and two other Six Nations titles with Wales.

Yet even for him this Saturday’s Third test decider between the British & Irish lions and South Africa is a first.

“It is my first start in a Test series for the Lions which I am hugely proud of and it is a third Test series decider against the world champions, so it is definitely right up there as one of the biggest games in a Lions shirt.”

A replacement in the first and third Tests four years ago, and in the first two Tests in this series, starting may have its advantages. At least Owens will not have to undergo anything like the torture of the thirst Test endgame in Eden Park four years ago.


Entering the 79th minute, after Owen Farrell's magnificent 48-metre penalty had levelled the match, from Beauden Barrett's restart Owens was initially penalised for playing the ball after Liam Williams palmed it forward, or laterally depending on your point of view.

After what must have seemed an eternity for Owens, Romain Poite changed his decision to 'accidental offside' and instead gave the All Blacks a scrum rather than the kick to win the game. Cue the draw, and the increasing if stunned realisation that the series had also been drawn.

“It was strange right at the end of the game,” recalled Owens, “everybody not really knowing what was happening but they were the rules and perhaps we would have liked a decider at some point. But it was a three Test series and the spoils were even at the end of it and we had to be content with that.”

Some players, Sam Warburton included, momentarily presumed there might be extra-time, something which Warren Gatland has suggested for this Saturday in the unlikely event that lightening strikes twice.

“I am not sure, we haven’t spoken about a draw this week at all so I think that is something for you lot to discuss and mull over. For us we are concentrating on the victory,” said Owens.

In any case the odds on the draw are 18-1 and in all probability there will be a winner. South Africa are 8-13 favourites after not only leveling the series with last Saturday’s 27-9 win, but seemingly wounding the Lions as well.

“I don’t think so,” said Owens on Thursday day. “Both Test matches were very similar, in the second half (first Test) we probably got the momentum and built that pressure on South Africa and they did that against us in the second Test. The confidence is still there and we know and trust our processes and know what we are trying to achieve.”

Heading into a series decider for the third series in a row, it’s of some comfort too that the Lions do so with the same head coach and the same captain, Alun Wyn Jones, as for the win in Sydney eight years ago.

“Alun Wyn and Warren have been there and done it, they’ve seen it all. Having them around the place and their experience, it’s huge. It’s rubbed off on everybody in the way we’ve prepared and everyone has been committed to this week. That has been led by Warren and Alun Wyn.”

It comes as no surprise to hear Owens describe Gatland’s demeanour in a week such as this.

“He’s very calm. He just knows how to get the best out of the players whether it’s a small conversation here or there. He steps in when he needs to, prompts boys when he needs to and he’s just very calm and knows how to get the best out of each individual.

“He has been at his best with that stuff this week. You can sense the confidence and experience he brings by the way he enters team meetings and talks. That huge experience he has got is right around the place at the moment.”

Owens and Welsh loosehead Wyn Jones have been charged with rectifying an increasingly problematic scrum last week.

“Myself and Wyn coming in to start and freshen things up is going to be a huge challenge for us but we are confident in each other’s ability and the combination of myself, Wyn and Tadhg (Furlong) has scrummaged before so we are just looking forward to that challenge.”

Apart from the captain, Furlong is the only other player in this team to have started all three Tests on two successive Lions tours. Owens has seen the growth in Furlong’s game from four years ago.

“Tadhg is an absolutely world class frontrow forward. Scrummaging-wise, he knows exactly what he wants from you as a hooker and what he needs. The work he does off the field is just unbelievable, the detail he goes into to make sure his scrummaging is spot on and what he expects of his hooker, loosehead, flanker. That rubs off on you and leaves you in no doubt that he’s the anchor of the scrum.

“He leaves you in no doubt about what he expects from you and I think he’s gone up a level from four years ago definitely with his experience around the place. What he has added to his game especially is not just the scrummaging but his knowledge and talk around the maul work and contact area, carrying. He is definitely an allround player now and not just a scrummaging threat.

“He’s a lot more experienced from four years ago but he’s added lots to his game since then as well.”

Gerry Thornley

Gerry Thornley

Gerry Thornley is Rugby Correspondent of The Irish Times