Owens recalls pain and politics of rugby before retirement

Ken Owens has played such an important role in Welsh rugby for more than a decade. On and off the field.

If anybody needed reminding of his influence, a new programme profiling the Wales hooker has shown the vital role he played in ensuring a threatened players strike was averted against England in February 2023 and how close the Six Nations match was to being called off.

A revealing S4C documentary to be aired on Sunday, 2 June follows Owens in the final year of his career before he announced his retirement in April 2024.

There are contributions from team-mates Jonathan Davies and Alun Wyn Jones, coaches Warren Gatland, Robin McBryde and Phil Davies and emotional interviews with his wife Carys and parents Delme and Frankie.

It covers the period when Owens captained Wales for the first time in the Six Nations which marked a controversial time.

Former Welsh Rugby Union chief executive Nigel Walker admitted Owens played a pivotal role in helping the England game to go ahead.

Owens also had to cope with the debilitating back injury that forced him to miss a fourth World Cup and eventually announce his retirement in April 2024.

Pain game

The programme starts in September 2023 with Owens struggling to get out of his bed and battling to do menial things like brushing his teeth.

"I have been in pain for four months now," says Owens.

"Sometimes getting up in the morning and walking to the toilet, I have to crawl like a baby. Sometimes I can't reach the toilet and that's quite dramatic. Yeah, it's agony."

Owens struggles down the stairs with his mum Frankie feeding his youngest six-month-old son Talfan.

He puts on his back brace and shows his tub of pills, admitting his frustration that he can't pick up his son.

Owens is shown in June 2023 being forced to train on his own on the opening day of the World Cup camp after his long-standing back pain resurfaces.

In July he is in hospital and told he requires surgery and will miss a fourth World Cup.

Later we see the haunting picture of him sitting in his living room receiving a drip before watching the quarter-final against Argentina from his armchair.

"At the start of the year Wales captain, now sitting watching the World Cup, hardly able to move," reflects Owens.

An infection had followed two months after his operation and there are more shots of him struggling to get out of bed and trying and get his body back aligned on a special machine.

"I have to force myself when I walk, I push my hips to one side to try and straighten up a little," said Owens.

Wales captain at last

Gatland admitted he had handed Ken Owens a hospital pass by giving him the Wales captaincy for the 2023 Six Nations.

Owens recalls how he was in the bath when he received the call from the Wales coach asking him to be captain.

It fulfilled a lifetime's dream for him and his family as he realised the last personal accolade but perhaps the most fulfilling in a career that included 91 Wales caps and five Tests for the British and Irish Lions.

Ken's dad Delme, who has travelled across the world to watch his son, is followed at the opening home match against Ireland.

"As a father, wow. First cap, first cap at home, first try I was very proud, Lions selection and Lions captain wow. But Wales captain, you don't get much better than that. I'm living in dream land."

Unfortunately Wales got hammered by Andy Farrell's side and things were about to escalate, particularly off the field.

Strike averted

The programme travels with Owens to and from the Vale of Glamorgan hotel three days before Wales were due to host England in the 2023 Six Nations match.

Welsh professional players were holding talks with the Welsh Rugby Union representatives to decide if they would strike for the showpiece game in England because of an ongoing contractual dispute between the two parties.

"This is the worst moment I have ever witnessed in the Welsh game since I have been a professional player," said Owens.

"I thought I had seen everything but it's a shambles."

The strike was averted with with interim WRU chief executive Walker and Owens hosting an outside press conference where the Wales captain admitted Wales were the laughing stock of world rugby.

Driving home, Owens said: "The game goes ahead but as it was first thing this morning, the game was off. It was very close towards the end.

"I would have been happy not to take the field against England with the other players. That's how we feel."

Gatland stated how Owens had to keep the squad together because of what he described as a significant split in terms of going on strike. Walker acknowledged the role Owens played in the crisis.

"I don't think it's an exaggeration to say that if Ken were not the man he is, if he had not made the contribution he made, the threatened players strike against England may have happened," said Walker.

"The Welsh rugby landscape would have looked completely different."

While this was happening, wife Carys was pregnant and revealed Owens had been in hospital with her on the morning of the strike.

The Sheriff of Carmarthen

After being told at 18 he would never make it as a professional player, his rise from Carmarthen Athletic to British and Irish Lions is charted.

You sense how much the town and Carmarthen Athletic rugby club played in Owens' development.

He revealed how he spent a lot of time down the club as a youngster with his family involved heavily. His dad Delme played for the club and later became team manager.

Owens is filmed in the Carmarthen Athletic clubhouse where a pair of his boots now hang alongside rugby heroes and sporting royalty like Pele and Muhammad Ali in a unique collection started by former club president Gwynne King Morgan.

Former Ysgol Bro Myrddin sports teacher Hefin Elias remembers his former pupil as a child with Owens regularly returning to his old school to speak to the current classes.

Elias recalls a conversation he had with Owens about him needing to change his diet with Ken's mum complaining to him about the extra cost at a chance meeting in the local supermarket.

Final farewell to Scarlets

Owens was a one-team man after making his Scarlets senior debut in 2006 before going on to play 274 matches.

The programme finishes with Owens in improved health in May 2024 at the final Scarlets home match of the season as he waves goodbye to the fans carrying his younger son onto the Llanelli ground with his older son walking beside him.

It proves another emotional day for the family as they realise this is the end of a chapter of Owens' life but also the beginning of another.

You can watch Ken Owens: Y Sheriff on S4C on Sunday, 2 June at 21:00 BST. Or watch later on demand on the BBC IPlayer.