IN December 2020 Aneurin Owen had nagging doubts about whether he could mix it with the big boys. In January 2022 he is a lynchpin in the Dragons XV.

The 21-year-old from Newport has long been marked as a serious prospect by his Rodney Parade coaches but they took a cautious approach.

Owen spent 2019/20 on a conditioning plan to prepare him for the rigours of professional rugby; it was a move that is now paying dividends but led to the centre fearing he was being left behind.

His Wales Under-20s teammates were getting their crack at regional rugby while he was playing the waiting game.

That changed at Bordeaux-Begles’ Stade Chaban-Delmas in December 2020 when finally Owen made his Dragons debut off the bench.

Cue the relief, and he’s featured in 24 or 25 possible games since.

South Wales Argus: DEBUT: Aneurin Owen in action for the Dragons at Bordeaux-Begles in December 2020DEBUT: Aneurin Owen in action for the Dragons at Bordeaux-Begles in December 2020

“Just over a year ago I was starting to get doubts about whether I could step up, about whether I was up to that level,” admitted the centre, an ever-present this season.

“Then you get one game, really enjoy it, learn loads and it kick-starts you into it. This last year has gone really quickly and it has been a lot of fun.

“Speak to any player and they had a little bit of doubt about whether they were good enough.

“For me, you start seeing other players make that step up and worry you might get left behind. That doubt is something that drives you on and makes you want to get better.

“It's in the back of your mind that you might not be good enough and you want to be, you don't want to get left behind.

“That uncertainty about making the next step up is always there and that is what drives you as a player.

“You wait all that time to get in the team and all of a sudden it snowballs. I am loving it at the moment, so if I keep working hard hopefully that will continue.”

Owen would have been assured by anybody who had seen him in action for Ebbw Vale or Wales Under-20s that he would make it as a professional.

Previously a fly-half, the centre is classy on the ball, comfortable taking it to the line and is the midfield option that will allow the Dragons to play a wider game, something he is learning to do at a higher level.

South Wales Argus: Aneurin Owen on the run for the Dragons at PerpignanAneurin Owen on the run for the Dragons at Perpignan

“The game is faster and more physical, with more hits,” said uncapped Owen, who was called into the Wales squad last summer. “You have less time to see the game and have to make quicker decisions with and without the ball.

“You have to move more quickly into positions and it's about trying to keep your strengths but speeding the process up.”

Owen and fellow rising star Ben Carter have impressed the Dragons coaches, and their senior teammates, with their humility and their thirst for knowledge.

The centre has picked the brains of Gavin Henson, Jamie Roberts and Nick Tompkins and learnt on the job.

“You play against different teams and players, get exposed and constantly take bits in to try and add them to your game,” he said.

“You get an idea of how you want to play the game and what your strengths and weaknesses are. I've got to keep learning and keep getting better.”

And Owen is finding his voice in a position where communication is key.

“Naturally in your first couple of games, you are not going to be as vocal,” he said.

“It's been quite nice being next to people like Sam Davies and Jamie because of the experience they have and how much they help you out.

“I only had to focus on my job because they were taking care of other stuff. Now that I've got some experience, from learning in games, I can find my own voice.

“I feel a lot more comfortable in it compared to the start when it was daunting.”

The Dragons haven’t had a lot to shout about this season after winning just one of seven United Rugby Championship fixtures and suffering defeat to Perpignan and Lyon in the European Challenge Cup.

That leaves them needing victory at Benetton this afternoon if they are to stand a chance of making the knockout stages.

“We've been really competitive this season and we've been in a lot of one-score games. It's about trying to shift them in our favour,” said Owen.

“This is a massive game. Europe is great and we need to win to still be a part of it.”