Neil Jenkins: Getting a kick from his 'best of the best' boot boys
Legendary Lions kicker and now their specialist coach is mightily impressed by the dead-eyed deeds of Halfpenny and Farrell, as he tells Chris Hewett
If memory is capricious, facts are facts. When Neil Jenkins, one of the great marksmen of the modern era, reflects on his winning Lions tour of South Africa in 1997, purgatorial images of a massive Springbok pack – overfed, overdeveloped, overbearing and occasionally well over the top – fix themselves in his mind's eye. "I don't know how we got through that second Test in Durban, we were so much under the pump," he said.
The statistics, which by definition do not change with the passage of time, tell us precisely how the Lions got through it. They did so primarily because Jenkins kicked 15 points over the course of those 80 momentous minutes at Kings Park, just as he had the previous week in Cape Town. When the series came to an end in Johannesburg seven days later, he booted another 11 – not that it mattered, the argument having already been decided.
South Africa claimed three times as many touchdowns as the Lions in that series, yet finished second. It was the shape of things to come. Four years ago in the same country, it was the tourists who won the try-count and the Boks who took the spoils. Now, perhaps more than ever before, the team sending the ball between the sticks can expect to prevail over the one grounding it over the whitewash.
Hence Jenkins' presence as kicking coach on this trip and his profound influence on the way it is taking shape. The man from Church Village, a fast-growing valleys community situated between Pontypridd and Llantrisant, is currently presiding over one of the most extraordinary exhibitions of goal-kicking in the annals of rugby touring. Leigh Halfpenny, the principal marksman, has missed only twice in 29 attempts since leaving Blighty, while Owen Farrell has landed 18 of his 19 shots to date. As things stand, the Australians cannot so much as cough in the wrong place without conceding three points.
There have been wondrous goal-kicking alliances on previous treks: Barry John and Bob Hiller on the triumphant 1971 tour of New Zealand; Phil Bennett and Andy Irvine on the undefeated romp through South Africa three years later. When the red-shirted tourists met the All Blacks in the final Test of the 1977 series, the Scottish scrum-half Dougie Morgan was considered the best bet for the marksmanship duties, even though both Bennett and Irvine, the heaviest scorers in Lions history, were on the field with him.
Yet we have seen nothing like this, as Jenkins acknowledged while the players were making the most of a free pass ahead of this weekend's second, potentially decisive meeting with the Wallabies. "We're certainly lucky with the kickers we have here, the best of the best," he said. "Most people doing this job have really good temperaments for it – not all, but most – and are able to put themselves in the zone. Leigh has had that ability from day one and he has a tremendous work ethic to go with it. Owen? This is the first time I've coached him but he's similar. And of course, he has kicking in his genes."
While Farrell has inherited his dead-eyed sense of direction from his father, Andy – another of the coaches in this well-conditioned and highly motivated squad – and started putting boot to ball under the most educated of paternal eyes, Jenkins was self-taught: an autodidact who turned into a kicking automaton. "There was some help from my mother's brother, but basically I grew up watching videos of Grant Fox and Michael Lynagh," he said, referring to the All Black outside-half who helped defeat the Lions in 1993, and the World Cup-winning Wallaby.
"Then, in South Africa in '97, I found myself practising with Dave Alred [the long-serving England kicking coach who was a pioneering figure in the discipline and still works with his principal protégé, Jonny Wilkinson]. "When he came along it was a real eye-opener and it helped me massively. I learnt an awful lot from him: I actually started using a tee rather than sand, which I hadn't thought was possible for me. That experience showed me what was necessary if I wanted to perfect my technique. The practice was constant – there was no let-up.
"But it's all about being able to kick in match conditions, isn't it? It's one thing banging them over on the training field and another thing doing it in a Test match, when you may not have had a shot for 20 or 30 minutes, just played through umpteen phases and suddenly find yourself confronted with an important opportunity. When I take the tee on [to the pitch] for Leigh, I try to make sure he gets his breath back if he's blowing, to help him settle down and get himself into the mode. If he's in that correct frame of mind, I pretty much let him carry on. If I've spotted one or two technical things that aren't quite right I might mention something, but I don't speak for the sake of it.
"I remember him playing for Wales at Murrayfield in the last Six Nations. He missed three on the bounce – I don't think that had happened to him before – and he was feeling the crowd just a little bit. I told him to forget those kicks and think about the things he normally did: stay nice and upright and get through the ball on contact. He nailed the shot and went on to kick seven out of eight. I said to him afterwards: 'For all your 100 per centers, that was the best day I've seen you have. To do that from where you came from...'"
Halfpenny was always the favourite to shoulder the marksmanship burden on departure from Heathrow, but he was not odds-on. Jonathan Sexton, patently the senior outside-half in the party, regularly performs the role for Ireland and relishes the extra pressure it brings. How was the pecking order established? "We knew we'd have at least two very good kickers on the field and that we'd be choosing one of them," Jenkins explained. "The way things unfolded against Western Force in Perth, when Leigh started the game and kicked 11 from 11… well, that propelled him in front of the other guys. Jonny was disappointed: I wouldn't expect anything different. But Leigh seemed like the right man and he's performed incredibly well."
Jenkins is as motivated for this coming Test as any of the direct participants, largely because it strikes a chord with his recollection of events 16 years ago. "I remember the Boks running out that day: I thought they were going to run straight through the stand," he said. "I don't see things being any different on Saturday because, like the South Africans were back then, the Wallabies are one down and they'll come at us with everything. It's the last chance for them to keep the series going and it will be a game of huge intensity and massive pressure."
These Lions might need to kick their goals, then? The "Ginger Monster" of blessed Welsh memory smiled. "I wouldn't be surprised if it all comes down to one single kick," he replied, "just as it did last week."
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