Rugby Union: Evans encourages Bath to open explosively

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Ieuan Evans limped out of the Lions tour of South Africa seven months ago believing he was also hobbling away from an international career that had made him the most revered rugby figure in Wales. Today, he returns to centre stage in Bordeaux for the high point of an unexpected Indian summer. Chris Hewett wonders if the Scarlet Dragon will turn up the heat on Brive by breathing fire into Bath?

He has won a record 71 caps for Wales, captained his country on a record 28 occasions and scored a record 33 tries in the process. He has played in three World Cups, undertaken as many Lions tours and once experienced the ultimate pleasure of making a complete horse's backside of David Campese in front of 50,000 typically fair-minded Australians. The only person to pin anything on the most elusive British wing of his generation was the Queen, who slipped up the blind-side and nailed him with an MBE. As Johnny-come-latelys go, Ieuan Evans brings a certain something to the Bath dressing room.

Everyone has a good word for Ieuan; canonised in Carmarthen, lionised in Llanelli and worshipped the length and breadth of Wales, his good-egg reputation precedes him to such a degree that when he joined Bath in the summer, even the cocksure and cussed Recreation Grounders were nice to him. Evans' new club-mates spared him the time-honoured initiation ritual - an ego-deflating concoction of mocking criticism and umpteen character- building games in the second team - and embraced him with open arms.

If Evans has yet to translate to the West Country the talismanic status he enjoys back home, it is because the Bath midfield has yet to work out a method of giving him the ball. However, now that Jeremy Guscott, his old Lions mucker, is back in harness, normal service should soon be resumed. Who knows? It might even happen in the firecracker atmosphere of Le Stade Lescure in Bordeaux this afternoon and if it does, Bath will fancy their chances of realising the European dream that has obsessed them for more than a decade.

Certainly, the Brive threequarters will be watching the Welshman's every move in an advanced state of paranoia. Clad in his more familiar Stradey Park red, Evans put two blinding tries past the Frenchmen during last year's quarter-final and while those world-class finishes did not prevent Carbonneau, Lamaison and company advancing to the Heineken title at their first attempt, they still remember the dashing side-stepper who caught them with their pants down in public.

"It's difficult to judge how Brive have come on since last year, or even if they've come on at all," said Evans as he completed his final training run in Bath this week. "From what I was able to tell from our two pool games with them back in the autumn, they've retained the exact pattern that won them the title last year. They have a formidable set of backs - very quick, lots of movement off the ball - and a dynamic pack who can really motor if you let them.

"The one thing we cannot afford to do is back away from them, let them attack us. Leicester made that mistake in last season's final and for the opening 20 minutes, Brive were explosive to say the least. That first quarter did for the Tigers, so we know we have to compete from the moment we walk on to that pitch."

Back in the summer, you would have found long odds on Evans walking on to any pitch, least of all a Heineken Cup final arena with a club from the wrong side of the Severn. He did not so much tear his groin muscle while training for the second Lions Test in Durban as obliterate it and, as he supped his farewell ales in a variety of North Beach bars, he was adamant that he had played his last international and would spend the next few weeks considering his rugby future in its entirety.

So what changed his mind at the ripe old age of 33? Not only is Evans playing the biggest club game of his career this afternoon, but he is back in the Welsh squad for the Five Nations' Championship. "Eight months of rest. That's what changed my mind. In fact, this is the first time I've been involved in a Welsh national squad since last March and when you take a step back over that sort of prolonged period, you can't help but recharge your batteries.

"I'm still sticking to one decision in so far as I won't tour again. But having moved to Bath and resumed playing rugby in such a demanding environment, it made sense to put in that little bit extra and go for another Five Nations. Hell, a European Cup final is Five Nations level anyway. This is an incredibly high standard we're talking about here and I've been very impressed by the intensity of all the games I've played in a Bath shirt.

"There is such huge strength in English rugby now. I can't remember the last time I got up on a Saturday morning and thought: `You can take it easy, Ieuan, this will be a nice little run-out this afternoon'. Nice little run-outs don't exist any more and that has made the step up to international pitch much easier to make. The intensity was one of the main reasons I decided to leave Llanelli and come over the bridge."

Evans' uniquely rich experience of life in every last nook and cranny of the rugby-playing world - from the tin-roof shacks of Pontardulais and Camarthen Quins to the grand cathedrals of Eden Park and Newlands - equipped him admirably for the notoriously spikey and hard-bitten atmosphere of the Bath dressing room. "I knew the training would be exceptionally competitive but let's be honest, I'd been in all sorts of tough environments. It doesn't come much more competitive than a Lions tour, where 30-plus outstanding players are scrapping away heart and soul for 15 Test places.

"No, I wasn't taken aback by what I found at Bath because nothing surprises me in rugby any longer. It wasn't as though I'd come straight to The Rec from a little cocoon in west Wales. There is, though, a special spirit at the club and it's that spirit we'll be relying on to take us past Brive.

"Things haven't gone precisely to plan in the domestic competitions this season and it's been frustrating because we all know we are capable of better. But there are class players at Bath and class players perform on the big occasion. And they don't come much bigger than this, do they? It's right up there alongside a Five Nations match in my book and that makes it the high point of my club career."

An indication, perhaps, that after this grandest of grand finales, he will rest his weary head in the knowledge that he really has done it all. "Oh no, I haven't done it all by any means," he smiled. "To start with, I've never been sent off."

You can bet your last French franc that he will not be dismissed today, either. If the entire rugby world agrees on one thing, it is that Ieuan Evans plays by the rules. Brilliant, but fair.