Ahead of making his Wales debut against Scotland this weekend, Shane Lewis-Hughes sat down to answer questions from the media via a Zoom conference call.
This is what the young Cardiff Blues blindside had to say about being coached by the “legendary Chris Jones”, his “obsessed to be the best” motto and the rapport he has built with Alun Wyn Jones.
Q: Last week you weren’t even in the Wales squad, now you are starting. It’s been a bit of a whirlwind?
A: Yeah, that’s the word for it - it has been a whirlwind.
I’m just grateful to be here. It’s something I’ve dreamed of since I was a little kid - to be in this environment, to be like a sponge, soak it up and learn from the best. To get the opportunity at the weekend is just surreal. I wasn’t in the squad originally, but I was just grateful to get the chance to come in and show what I can do.
Q: You’ve had Sam Warburton talking you up and Wayne Pivac saying you are the next Alun Wyn Jones. Are you having to pinch yourself?
A: It’s obviously nice to get comments like that off those people. It is brilliant and it does mean the world to me, but I’ve got a job to do on Saturday to go out there and perform. Unless I do that, it means nothing.
I just want to make sure I nail all my roles and have the confidence to go out there and do a job.
Q: What was it that first ignited your passion for rugby?
A: I remember it and can see it right now.
I was about six years old watching the telly and my mum was sat right next to me. It was funny because I was sat on a bean bag tucking into some pork chops and pasta.
I asked ‘What’s that on the telly’ and she explained it was rugby and Wales were playing.
I said ‘Mum, I really want to play, is there anyone around here I can play for’.
And she said ‘Yeah, there’s a club in Ferndale, 10 seconds around the corner from us’.
I remember everything, the first session I went to. Without being cringey or corny, I just had a feeling when I first touched the ball, passing the ball, everything in that session, I just had a feeling I did not want to let go.
That’s driven me every single day, I absolutely love rugby. It’s something that has always been in my heart and means a massive amount to me.
I first started playing at Ferndale when I was seven, then I went to play for Ystrad Rhondda when I was 12, doing district age grades at the same time. Then I played for Rhondda U15s under a legendary coach called Chris Jones. From there then I went through the full age-grade system.
Q: Chris Jones is quite a character. What was it like being coached by him?
A: I can’t put into words how much that bloke means to me.
From the first conversation I had with him, when I met him at nine years old, the fire he gave me to play rugby, on top of what I already had in me, was unbelievable.
He had a hard edge about him, no nonsense. I remember three sessions a week at 12 years old, just absolutely blitzing us, three-hour sessions, fitness at the end until you were spewing, he just installed that hard edge, the basic foundations in you to play rugby.
That has stayed in me since. That is the advantage it gives me, that mental edge when I go out and play. I would never get to this point if it wasn’t for him.
He messaged me to say congratulations and I told him ‘I would never be here if it wasn’t for you’. I owe most of this towards that bloke, he is absolutely amazing.
I have heard a few stories about what he used to do! He was a hard bloke, put it that way.
Q: Your motto on your Twitter page is “Obsessed to be the best”. Where did that come from?
A: It effectively means trying to be the best version of yourself every single day. That’s a mindset I’ve had for as long as I can remember.
Whatever I commit to, I want to be the best at it. It’s something I’ve always had in me and when I started playing rugby, the love I had for it, I just knew I could bring out the best version of myself in rugby.
The ability rugby gives you to improve yourself and get better and win and to do that with your team-mates, I just absolutely love it.
If you can go to sleep at night knowing you’ve done everything you can that day to be the best version of yourself, no matter what job you do, you can rest easy.
I’ve always had the ability to give my best. Just go out there and be the best you can be. That’s what I try to do in rugby and that’s what has got me to this point. Hopefully it drags me through to achieve higher too.
Q: Your Cardiff Blues team-mates nickname you ‘Crazy’. Is that to do with your work ethic?
A: It’s got something to do with it, yeah! It is.
It’s the training and the focus to be the best I can possibly be. A lot of people find it crazy and it is too much for some people, but people who love me, my friends, and people who understand what I’m trying to do respect me massively.
Even the boys who call me crazy do respect and do love me. It’s just good banter to have at the club. It comes from my training and my love for rugby.
Q: Talk about what it’s like to train with Alun Wyn Jones.
A: It’s been amazing to see how he operates. In the gym, we have been going hammer and tong at each other – we came out the other day and were exhausted and then had to go into a rugby session. We said “I think we pushed each other a bit too hard there butt!”.
It’s been great just to be around him, see his preparation, his focus. It’s inspiring. There’s no coincidence he is taking the Test record on Saturday.
You can only have massive respect for someone like that. The focus he has is absolutely incredible. It makes me realise I am normal - to have the focus I’ve got to be the best I can be. You can never be the best, or get to the level Alun has got to without having that mindset. His is incredible and he deserves the accolades he has got and will get.
When you come in an see the likes of Al and the rest of the boys you pinch yourself and think “It was only a couple of years ago I was watching him on the telly back in school!”
It’s mental. It’s amazing to be training with the likes of Al as he makes you better even if you’re not playing on the weekend. To rub shoulders with them, be a sponge, ask them questions, I love it – it’s brilliant.
Q: Who were your favourite Wales players growing up?
A: Without rubbing him up too much, Gethin Jenkins, who’s here now as our breakdown coach. That’s a guy I’ve got tremendous respect for, playing that position to have that many caps, the focus he had.
I was lucky enough to train with him at Cardiff Blues – again, preparation, focus, everything he put into it was the best it could be. When you look at him and Al, it’s no coincidence they are the two most capped Welsh players. That’s because of their preparation and the work they put in and their love of the game, and it’s inspiring to be around people like that.
When you watch them as a kid, you can’t believe how well they played every single time they put on a Welsh jersey. And then when you’re here in the environment, you can see why. There’s loads of players I used to look up to, like Sam Warburton. So it’s those three really who stick in my mind.
Q: You have been brought in to the team for your physicality. Has that always come naturally to you?
A: It’s probably the most natural part of my game. It’s the other stuff I have had to work on. The physical part is something I love. It’s the bread and butter of a flanker – getting your head in places they shouldn’t be and what have you. So if that’s what they want me to bring it’s something I’m looking forward to.
Q: What’s the dream? What are your goals for your career?
A: Hopefully it’s not a one-cap wonder kind of thing!
Of course I have goals and stuff I want to achieve and playing for Wales is something I’ve always wanted to achieve.
I’ve got the opportunity this weekend and I’m solely focused on being the best I can possibly be this weekend. I’m going to do my part to help the team be successful and then we’ll go from there. Hopefully it continues and I get to play for Wales in future and push on.
Q: How busy has your phone been since you were named in the team?
A: I think I’ve had half of Rhondda text me! It’s been crazy.
We had a weights session on the day the team was announced, so I turned my phone off for an hour or so.
We came out to have lunch, I put my phone on and my WhatsApp, Instagram, Twitter was just going crazy. It’s mental – anybody who could contact me was contacting me.
It means the world to me and I’m very proud to be from the area I’m from. It’s a small area in the Rhondda. I know it sounds cringey but we are a big family and to have that support from those people, my family and friends, means the world to me.
I am still there in Ferndale. Me and my girlfriend are looking to move out – but it probably will be somewhere in the Rhondda!
It’s the community, everything, you can’t beat it. I love it.
Q: Will the one sad part of Saturday be that your family and friends won’t be able to be there?
A: Yeah, it is.
My mother is my biggest motivation, not just in rugby but everything. Not having her there and not having my girlfriend there and my friends there will be sad because I wanted to share that moment with them.
That is disappointing but I know they’ll be watching on telly and supporting me. I will be able to Facetime them afterwards and hopefully see them when this lockdown is over.