Half a century since the heyday of Barry John, in the week the storied stand-off died, red No 10 jerseys still evoke strong symbolism. Ioan Lloyd’s selection against England, for his very first Wales start in any position at Test level, epitomises the raw line-up picked by Warren Gatland.
Not only that; it reinforces that if the underdog visitors are to topple their hosts at Twickenham for the first time in over eight years, Saturday will probably have to be a thrilling encounter that canonises new legends. In the wake of Dan Biggar’s international retirement, a successor must step up. Though just 22, Lloyd is a familiar talent to many on both sides of the Severn Bridge.
“I played against him when he was at Bristol,” said George Ford, who has 89 more caps than his opposite number for this weekend.
“He’d have played a little bit more at 15 and maybe on the wing.
“What do I know about him? He’s a dangerous player, a good runner and can create something out of nothing. He made that team tick in the second half last week.”
Lloyd arrived from the bench against Scotland, replacing the stricken Sam Costelow a few minutes before half-time. In the fog of a gruesome first period for Wales, his first touch was a nervy touch-finder that skewed in-field and spurned a chance to exert pressure from a penalty. Thereafter, Lloyd settled. The scoreline over his stay on the pitch, which featured three conversions, was 26-7 to Wales.
He seems most comfortable sitting in a second wave, nestling in behind forwards or combative centres, and taking pull-back passes. From such deeper positions, Lloyd can dart towards holes if the defensive line becomes disconnected. Think of how Richie Mo’unga and Marcus Smith enjoy attacking. Lloyd also plays short, unfussy passes to send others towards space. While unquestionably raw as a top-level playmaker, he is stocky and evasive with plenty of spark.
Born in Cardiff and schooled at Ysgol Gyfun Gymraeg Glantaf before joining Clifton College, Lloyd scored on his Premiership debut for Bristol Bears against Bath in October 2019. Helping to secure a thumping win in the West Country derby, he subsequently became a mainstay of Pat Lam’s match-day squads.
However, Lloyd would never nail down a definitive role. Of his 59 Premiership appearances for Bristol, 35 came from the bench. A total 24 league starts were spread between five backline positions – fly-half, inside centre, left wing, right wing and full-back. History is littered with examples of mercurial utility players who become victims of their own versatility.
In the spring of 2022, towards the end of a campaign disrupted by a broken jaw, Lam explained that Lloyd would be “narrowing in on inside centre and fly-half”. But there would only be a single Premiership start at 12 during the 2022-23 campaign, and none at 10. When summer arrived, Lloyd was on his way to Scarlets in a bid to kick-start his international career. Lam insisted that Bristol wanted to keep a popular academy graduate.
Shoulder and hamstring injuries to Costelow have presented opportunities this season. Already, Lloyd has accrued more starts at fly-half for the Scarlets in the United Rugby Championship (seven) than he did for Bristol in the Premiership across five seasons (five). Gatland openly admits that Lloyd is “still learning”.
“He’s been working hard on his kicking game and strategy with Neil Jenkins,” added the Wales head coach. “That’s one area he was OK at when he came on [against Scotland], but it’s a big area of improvement. We can see what a quality footballer and running threat he is.
“He probably realises there’s less space and not so many opportunities as a running threat at Test level. It maybe only happens once or twice a half. His game management is pretty important.”
Lloyd only averages 6.6 kicks per 80 minutes in the URC this season and peers relieved pressure on him at Principality Stadium a week ago. During 44 minutes on the field, he only recorded two kicks in open play. The first was a clever, effective dink over the Scotland midfield from a lineout. An awkward, bobbling bounce caused bedlam. Lloyd will surely reprise the tactic to stunt England’s line-speed.
Whereas Wales had hoisted up-and-unders through Costelow in the opening half-hour, Tomos Williams became their go-to outlet later on. The replacement scrum-half, who starts against England with Gareth Davies dropped entirely, kicked nine times in the second half. When Williams did not put boot to ball, Lloyd helped Wales find width, even from deep inside their own territory.
Latest weather forecasts suggest that Twickenham should be dry on Saturday after showers throughout Friday. Lloyd missed training on Tuesday due to a tight hamstring, yet is sure to have taken heart from how Italy’s sweeping ball movement exposed the growing pains of England’s new, ultra-aggressive approach in defence. Then again, a week on with greater cohesion, the hosts are unlikely to be as charitable.
“If you control momentum and their speed of ball, it becomes more difficult for the opposition half-backs,” added Ford. “We’ll be going after that, I suppose.”
Test matches are supposed to be unforgiving. Rarely, though, are sink-or-swim situations so explicit. It calls to mind the fixture of 2018, when a 24-year-old Rhys Patchell, then of Scarlets, started. Eddie Jones relished the build-up, naturally, and wondered out loud whether Patchell would have the requisite “bottle”.
Those soundbites are not Steve Borthwick’s style. Privately, though, England will be aiming to hurry and harry the man in the famous No 10 shirt. Lloyd awaits a defining afternoon.