Evans promotes principle of positive thinking

HOME PROSPECTS; No 2: Wales
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The Independent Online
From the way the new Wales management have been going on, you might conclude that last season was just a bad dream. Alex Evans, the coach, has even come to the conclusion that Wales is the greatest rugby- playing nation on earth.

On this basis, one presumes Mike Hall's team should go on and win the World Cup but then, when we all wake up, we recall that this squad have come to South Africa after only the second Five Nations whitewash in Welsh rugby history.

So the surge of optimism that has followed that humbling experience is not based on anything that has yet occurred where it counts, on the field of play. But everybody knows that rugby in Wales is played in the mind as much as with the body and so it is reasonable to suppose that the psychological change wrought by the appointment of Evans and others will have enhanced Welsh chances in Group C and even beyond.

However just as Wales, champions in 1994, were not as bad as they consistently appeared in losing every game of the '95 championship, neither are they the world-beaters of their Australian guru's fond imagination. Or if they turn out to be, he is an alchemist among rugby coaches because, for all the intrinsic ability at his disposal, Evans's squad are as yet strictly base metal.

And if he ever wondered about the parochialism and introspection endemic in the Welsh, he has had it rudely made clear by the overt hostility of non-Cardiffians over the inclusion of 11 of his own Cardiff players in the squad. Spiteful letters and 'phone calls have been the despicable response from a moronic handful.

If he could be bothered to respond Evans could project a promising sequence of events which, had it not been for the recent whitewash, would be tolerably believable. Even if we make the minor assumption that Wales will struggle against New Zealand, there is more than enough talent in the squad Evans has at his command to beat the downcast Irish, let alone Japan.

That would take Wales through as pool runners-up behind the All Blacks and it is quite possible, remembering that Scotland beat France in Paris, to envisage the Scots winning Group D ahead of the French and so facing Wales in the last eight.

It is then just about possible to envisage Wales beating Scotland on a good day and, lo and behold, they are in the semi-finals when, so managers and coaches like to tell us, anything can happen. In 1987 it did: Wales were thrashed by New Zealand but then beat Australia in the play-off.

Third place had a perversely detrimental effect because it gave Wales ideas above their station and thereby concealed the true condition of Welsh rugby. As Evans himself puts it: "Wales has produced great rugby artists in the past, but rugby is becoming more and more of a science."

The burden of public expectation has never diminished even during years of consistent failure and the exaggerated reaction at home to the 11th- hour appointment of a new coaching team for the second World Cup in a row only proved the point.

In the 1991 World Cup Wales had Alan Davies as their temporary coach appointed in a crisis. Sound familiar? There was a surge of optimism then too, but in the event things went so badly that they alone of the old rugby countries had to suffer the indignity of playing qualifying matches for this tournament.

Evans's pedigree - assistant coach of Australia in the great years of the mid-Eighties and latterly guiding Cardiff to the Welsh championship - is such that they are justified in anticipating better results this time. They have some fine players, crucially including a great goal-kicker in Neil Jenkins. The deposed captain, Ieuan Evans, and Steve Ford are try-scoring, opportunist wings; Robert Jones is a masterly scrum-half.

With Ricky Evans and John Davies restored, Welsh forward stability will be restored as well; Gareth Llewellyn and the 6ft 10in Derwyn Jones ought to win a fair supply of line-out ball. But lest this is sounding rather auspicious, just remember Wales last season were incapable of doing anything with what ball they won, playing with no pattern, no confidence and not a clue.

These are failings, general and specific, on which Evans has worked assiduously since he agreed to take a sabbatical from his Cardiff job to answer the call of his adopted country. If we can be certain of anything, it is that by the time Wales kick off against Japan in Bloemfontein on Saturday he will have brought order where last season there was a form of chaos.

That is not about to win Wales the World Cup, and after the season they have just had a quarter-final place would do quite well. But it will restore lost credibility - and that alone will be a precious legacy for Evans to leave along with the poisoned chalice.

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