Ospreys sensation Eli is no pedestrian Walker
REFLECTING on his career in a recent blog, the footballer Michael Owen argued he suffered for being played "too much too soon".
Blessed with blistering pace, the former England striker hurtled to prominence as a precociously talented teenager in the late 1990s before a series of injuries blunted his impact on the game.
It is a dishearteningly familiar tale which has been retold across numerous sports, and the Ospreys are currently battling to ensure a similar fate does not befall their latest burgeoning talent, Eli Walker.
The 20-year-old winger has been irrepressible this season, scoring five tries in 11 appearances and scorching past opponents with the kind of innate speed and agility which helped Shane Williams bring the Liberty Stadium to its feet in recent years.
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This has been the campaign where Walker has truly blossomed, having shown his enormous promise only fleetingly last term.
His physical attributes have been evident for some time. A schoolboy athlete, the Gorseinon youngster can run 100 metres in less than 10.8 seconds. Walker also moves with a natural grace, swerving clear of defenders like a slalom skier.
He is a precious talent, though there is still room for improvement — and that is perhaps the most exciting part of all.
At times, Walker seems like he cannot believe quite how easily he has left others trailing.
On a couple of occasions — against Connacht and Toulouse, for example — he has made breathtaking breaks, only to seem a little nonplussed as to how he has arrived at such a position.
Some chances have gone awry as a result, but more often than not his scintillating forays forward have led to tries.
Inevitably, his form has led to speculation that he could be in line for a call-up to Wales's Six Nations squad.
For a man who appears to be permanently in fifth gear, it would be understandable if he was swept away by the speed of his ascent to international contender.
But as far as his chances of playing for Wales are concerned, Walker is happy to deviate from his default setting and take things slowly.
"I've not really thought about Wales," he says.
"A Wales call-up is not something you can plan for.
"All I can do is play well for my region. Anything more would be a bonus.
"I've spoken to Gruff (Rees, the Ospreys' backs coach) about it, and he's said it's something I can aim for in the future.
"It would be a great honour to play for Wales, and it's something I'd love to do one day.
"When I do get the opportunity, it will be a very proud moment for me.
"But I'm not worried about a call-up at the moment — I'm just hoping to keep playing for the Ospreys."
Walker has his trepidations about accelerating his way to a first Wales cap — and with good reason.
His former Ospreys and Wales Youth team-mate Tom Prydie is an archetypal example of how a premature call-up can stunt the development of a promising young player.
The then 17-year-old winger had played just seven minutes for the Ospreys when he was named in the Welsh squad for the 2010 Six Nations.
At 18, he then became Wales's youngest ever player when he started in the win over Italy during the same campaign.
But this was not the dawn of a glittering new international career, as Prydie won only three further caps before he was tossed aside into Welsh rugby's hinterland.
Prydie is now 20 years old and rebuilding his career at the Dragons, and Walker is eager to avoid such a tumultuous rise and fall.
"I think that's the point the coaches are trying to put across," he says. "It's something that shouldn't be rushed.
"I'm on the same page as the coaches here — I don't need to rush anything.
"I'm still only 20 years old, so I'm young and I have time on my side. There's no rush.
"As long as I'm playing for my region and performing consistently that's the main thing."
Consistency is certainly an aspect of Walker's game which he has improved in this campaign.
Whereas his involvement in matches was only momentary last season, he now looks to influence games as much as possible, moving infield from his wing to excellent effect.
"I've played more often and more consistently this season, which has given me the confidence to show what I can do," Walker says.
"I feel more settled in the side now. Confidence and belief plays a big part for any young player.
"I'm definitely getting my hands on the ball more than I used to.
"It's what the coaches demand from back-three players, the minimum they expect.
"I'm coming off my wing and looking to get involved as much as I can."
Following last summer's departures of Williams, Tommy Bowe and Nikki Walker among others, Walker and Hanno Dirksen found themselves as the Ospreys' frontline wingers.
And now with Dirksen ruled out for the rest of this season with a knee injury, Walker has gone from wide-eyed newcomer to first-team regular in a matter of months.
"When I first got into the side, it was great to come in and train with the likes of Shane Williams and Tommy Bowe," he adds.
"I used to look up to them when I was seven or eight years old, and then being able to play with them was amazing.
"One of the big things they taught me was to believe in myself. Shane in particular would pull me to one side in training and tell me how important it was for me to back myself in games.
"You've got to back yourself wherever you are on the pitch, whether you're five yards out or 50 yards out."
Walker has certainly heeded Williams's advice, and his new-found confidence to run with the ball from all parts of the ground will be evident when the Ospreys host Zebre tonight.
The reigning RaboDirect Pro12 champions should have little difficulty in beating the Italians who are currently bottom of the table.
But, when asked whether this will be an ideal opportunity to boost his ever-increasing tally of tries, Walker is typically measured about his evening's work ahead.
"We haven't got that many home games left, so we've got to make them count," he says.
"They're a good team so it will be a hard task, and a win is vital for us.
"We can't afford to look at certain games thinking the bonus point is ours — we have to focus on getting the win first and foremost."