DRAGONS v ULSTER (Friday, KO 7.05)

SIX days after testing himself against the Wales starter known for his physicality, Newport Gwent Dragons scrum-half Jonathan Evans’ steep learning curve could see him locking horns with a classy Springbok.

Last Saturday the 20-year-old lined up against 67-times capped Mike Phillips in the Amlin Challenge Cup defeat to Bayonne.

Evans did well against the man fancied to start for the Lions and now he faces the prospect of a duel with Ulster’s Ruan Pienaar, a half-back who has represented South Africa 60 times.

Phillips and Pienaar are two of world rugby’s best paid players and the former Wales Under-20s scrum-half from Bargoed is enjoying his baptism of fire.

“Last weekend was really good,” said Evans. “Mike Phillips is number one in Wales and you have to challenge yourself against the best.

“They said on the television commentary that he is a foot bigger than me! I don’t think it’s quite that much but we are completely different types of players.

“I cannot play the same sort of game so I had to try and beat him in other areas, like delivery of the ball. It was a great challenge and I really enjoyed it.

“Now I could go up against Pienaar, who is another big international nine but completely different to Phillips.

“With him it’s the speed of the ball. He plays a quick game and he is a threat around the base and has great vision.

“Pienaar has the ability to box kick well and can also ping the opposition back in the corner and put them under pressure.

“It’s great to go up against players like this, at the moment I am just trying to get experience as a regional player but they have got that as frequent internationals.”

Evans, a former pupil at Lewis School in Pengam, combines his Dragons commitments with a spot of coaching with Rhymney Valleys Schools Under-15s.

But the 20-year-old knows that he has plenty of learning to do himself and watched in awe from the sidelines when Dimitri Yachvili was pulling the strings for Biarritz against the Dragons in pre-season.

The French ace is up there with Pienaar in terms of footballing scrum-halves who have the ability to boss a game, something that Evans, who started out as a fly-half before making the change to number nine in his early teens, admires.

“I would say I’m not bad in terms of the defensive kicks,” he said. “I’ve been working hard on contestable kicks – the accuracy, distance and getting it so that the wings can compete for the ball.

“One area that I’d like to improve on is my attacking kicks but at the moment I am focusing on the areas that are going well.

“I touched the ball around 85 times against Bayonne and that was mainly passing and working with forward carriers, like the Tom Brown try that was straight off the training park.

“Working on those skills is my main focus for now rather than the fancy stuff.”

And to that end things are going well for Evans, who has already equalled his season’s best by making eight Dragons appearances.

His previous campaigns have been plagued by injury but he has made the most of experienced campaigners Wayne Evans and Joe Bedford being sidelined to make the number 9 jersey his own.

“At the start of the year my aim was to become a recognised first team player and I have probably surpassed those expectations,” he said.

“The coaches backed me at the start of the season but said I needed a big year.

“They had faith in me and I hope I’m proving them right.”