Evans sets the heart pounding

FIVE NATIONS FOCUS: All of Wales will be inspired by a rare leader this afternoon. Steve Bale reports on a national treasure `I'm hungry for rugby. I've lost so many caps that I'm fresh for my age'
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There never was a prouder Welshman than Ieuan Evans, but less of a tub-thumper it is impossible to imagine. There is more of the lyricism of a bard than the fire of a dragon in the attitude and demeanour of the Wales captain.

There is, too, a poetry in the way he runs up the wing and scores tries to match the lilt in his heartfelt, articulate speech. This man is an ambassador not just for Welsh rugby but for rugby itself. Yet what does he want when Wales play England at Cardiff Arms Park this afternoon? Raw passion.

It is slightly disconcerting to hear him say so, but then his reference point is the 1993 Wales-England game. Then, it was like days of old - not in the margin of the Welsh win, a mere point, but in the sense of a nation united in common cause.

"It's up to us, the players, to find the weaknesses in England's defences but there is more to it than that. The atmosphere at the game two years ago [when who else but Evans should score the decisive try?] was a major factor in our win and a major help throughout the game. I had never felt anything like that before."

This last remark is a baleful commentary on the diminution of the Welsh crowd's fervour, the failure of national support at a time - those good old days long since behind them - when a series of struggling Wales teams needed it more than ever.

These days, though, Welsh rugby is more at peace with itself and the idea that the 50,000 or so inside the Arms Park today might "do it for Ieuan", just as he has so often done it for them, is no less attractive for its sentimentality.

If these people love the artistry of his rugby they are also in awestruck admiration of the resilience of his character. This game, after all, brings the latest of all-too-many comebacks from debilitating injury. Evans, 31 next month, has dislocated his right shoulder five times, necessitating two operations - each of which led to lay-offs lasting eight months.

He calculates that he has lost more than three years of rugby and as many as 30 caps through his absences, which means that otherwise he would long since have passed John Williams's Wales record of 55 and greatly extended his own tries' record of 21. Instead, he wins his 49th today and is the sort of bloke who even accepts that it might, just possibly, have done him some good to have had so many breaks from the game.

This is not intended as a pun, since the most recent injury - a fearful combination of broken fibula, dislocated ankle and snapped ligament - was the sheerest agony when it happened, playing for Llanelli at Cardiff last 1 October. But it is none the less the case that Evans, after missing Wales's most recent matches against France, South Africa and Italy, is at a peak of enthusiasm at the very best moment with the World Cup on its way.

"I have no intention of finishing after the World Cup; I'm not even considering it at the moment," he said. "I'm hungry for rugby. I've lost so many seasons, missed out on so many caps, that I'm relatively fresh compared with anyone else of my age at this stage of his career.

"I'm training as hard as ever, in fact harder than ever, because I don't have that fatigue that many people seem to have. I'd like all those lost caps back, all that time I've spent getting rehabilitated after injury and, who knows, if I had played in all those games would I still be around or would I already have had enough?"

Mind you, after seeing the grotesque angle of his left foot after this latest injury Evans could have been excused for never wanting to see a rugby ball, or more especially an opposing tackler, ever again. Yet he somehow turned the thought of dragging his body through yet another recuperation into a stimulus.

"The short-term aim was very, very short term: the only thing going through my mind was `would someone please put the ankle back in and ease the pain?' I have to say that thoughts about my rugby future did not impact at all and anyway as soon as we got in the ambulance John Fairclough [the surgeon] said he would have me back playing some time in the new year. He has been true to his word."

Evans now has a plate and half-a-dozen pins holding his left ankle-bone together. He spent five days in hospital and just over two weeks in plaster, was able to jog by the end of November, joined his Llanelli team-mates for training at the beginning of January and had his first game, a cup- tie in a morass at Glynneath, on 28 January. In each of his two subsequent league appearances he has been a try-scorer.

"The psychological battle is as important as the physical but it has never, whenever I've made a comeback, affected me too badly. Once the initial apprehension is over, once you have the first tackle, the first contact, it just goes - and that's always within the first 10 minutes.

"This was no different from previous occasions, though since I've started again I've been fortunate to have had the opportunity already to test the ankle in very different conditions. People ask me if I'm surprised to have made such a good recovery but, not having suffered anything like this before, it's very hard to say. All I could do was do as I was told."

And so to England. Once Evans was fit, there was never any doubt that he would be instantly restored not only to the threequarter line but to the captaincy as well. No disrespect to Gareth Llewellyn, who has made a decent job of it in his absence, but Evans is more than a captain. He is a talisman, and in Wales there have been few enough of those in recent years.

Not that he has ever accepted the conventional wisdom that wing, being remote from the whitest heat of the battle, is no place for a captain. "I have never understood that idea. You look at sides around the world. Gavin Hastings is even further away. Will Carling is only one position inside. Philippe Saint-Andr is on the wing just like me.

"It's a simple question of the best person for the job and, for the Welsh selectors, it happens to be me. OK, it may not be ideal but there are faults with anywhere you care to pick."

This is said without a trace of arrogance; Evans has now led Wales 25 times, seven more than any other predecessor, and that is all the justification he needs.