Sam Costelow has had the hype. In truth, he probably does not need it anymore but his performances do him a disservice in that regard because they command it.
He was an intriguing signing for the Scarlets ahead of the 2020/21 season. A rare instance where a hugely talented young Welsh rugby player came back to the country of his birth from an English club, rather than heading in the other direction.
His development has been carefully managed and, still only 21, he was initially used sparingly with then head coach Glenn Delaney refusing to get carried away with the mercurial talent he had on his hands.
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But there were flashes of brilliance in his first season, cameos that the likes of Paul Turner believed gave us a look into ‘the future’. But this season has been a little bit unsettling at times, with the Scarlets’ tumultuous trip to South Africa at the end of last year derailing his development from him.
Scarlets boss Dwayne Peel admitted as much: “He’s had a season where he started a few games early on and the Covid period, when we were in Africa and didn’t play, hurt him a little bit, in all honesty.
“He played against Bordeaux and he was in and out of the side.”
With Rhys Patchell returning from injury, and looking polished, it seemed Costelow might have to be a little more patient but the world works in mysterious ways. Patchell has suffered another injury which sidelined him for the Scarlets’ clash with Cardiff on Saturday night. Deeply unfortunate for him but it presented Costelow with a chance – and he took it.
The diminutive fly-half got the better of his opposite number Jarrod Evans – though it must be noted that the Scarlets pack were well on top and the relative platforms were not comparable.
Nonetheless, Costelow put in the kind of performance that got people excited. He challenged the line well, kicked adequately and moved his side around the field with an air of authority. There is a clear sense that he is growing ever more comfortable in his own skin from him in Llanelli and it bodes well.
He also appears to have bolted on a bit of weight, which was required in order to deal with the physical rigors of the game at professional level. When he danced around Dillon Lewis, it never looked like Tomos Williams was going to make the covering tackle as he powered away from the Wales scrum-half to score a wonderful solo effort.
He is beginning to look like the complete package – a running threat, a distributor and a solid defender. Starting a crunch Welsh derby on Saturday night, in front of a home crowd, and guiding the team to victory felt like a big stepping stone in his development.
Peel agrees: “Yeah it is. I’ve seen a massive growth in him over the last four or five weeks. I’ve just seen him go up to a level in his performance in training. He was good in the Sharks game, he was good when he came on against the Bulls and he was good last week. Patch has had an injury and he’s [Costelow] took his chance. He’s stepped up this week and he’s led the team well.”
The former Wales scrum-half added: “I always say to the half-backs that when they feel like they can lead the team and the team – I know this sounds weird – but the team is theirs to lead, then I think he will grow and grow.
“But what I will say is that he is still young, there is a lot of learning to do for him. There is still error in his game and there are still areas of his game in which he can get better.
“But he works hard and that is half the battle.”
So where do we go from here? Welsh rugby is littered with cautionary tales of age-grade talent who struggle to deliver on their promise in the professional game. Costelow does not look like he will add to the list but it is down to the Scarlets to ensure his development continues.
Without getting too carried away, senior international honors look inevitable for Costelow provided he has luck with injury. He can play the pragmatist and he has a mercurial side to him as well. He is the perfect cocktail, the likes of which Wayne Pivac does not currently have at his disposal.
Being conservative, it would appear this World Cup cycle has come too early but should he continue to develop over the next 18 months and produce more performances like we saw on Saturday night, then he could be the man to conduct the orchestra for the four years building up to the 2027 global gathering.
The thought of him pulling the strings at Test level is tantalizing but there is plenty of water to pass under the bridge before then. For now, he needs to find a level of consistency in his game from him. When that comes, the sky will become the limit.