Evans the wing on a high after the lows

Now he has the ball back, Wales' try-scorer supreme is happy in red again, he tells Ian Stafford
Click to follow
The Independent Online
There have been times, not that long ago, when Ieuan Evans has played a full 80 minutes of rugby for his beloved Wales without ever getting to touch the ball.

Lose, draw, or even occasionally win, the winger has trooped off the pitch wondering why the hell he bothered to turn up. "I may as well have been sitting in the stands, watching the others play," is how he puts it.

Now, just when the highest try-scorer in Welsh rugby history is nearing the end of a personally impressive but often, in terms of team success, frustrating career, he cannot get enough of the ball. At 32 years of age, with 31 tries to his name, Evans will turn out in Cardiff tomorrow to face the Irish, enjoying his rugby more than ever before and safe in the knowledge that he and the ball will become more than just acquaintances.

"I tell you, it's rejuvenating and reinvigorating to be playing this type of rugby, especially when you are nearing the end of your career like me," the former captain admits. "I'm not only receiving the ball, I'm encouraged to go out looking for it as well. I've been looking to play like this for a long, long time, and at last the Welsh are playing to their strengths."

This was clearly in evidence a fortnight ago when the Welsh turned on a second-half display at Murrayfield, never a happy hunting ground for the men in red, that would have made the great team of the 1970s proud. In the thick of the action was Evans, who not only scored his customary try in the corner, but also popped up in the centre to help create one for Neil Jenkins. The Welsh, understandably, were ecstatic with the result, and in the manner in which it was achieved.

"From a personal point of view I had to be happy with that," Evans continues. "I've never won at Murrayfield in 12 years of international rugby. Come to think of it, I've never even scored there. But the team in general were buoyant, maybe even a little incredulous after the game. For 40 minutes we clicked so well that we all wanted to run back on to the pitch and carry on playing."

There must not be many times during Evans' long career when he and his team-mates have felt like this. Yet he feels only now that the weight of expectation created by the 1970s team has finally disappeared. By doing so, his team can finally make a fresh start.

"I was brought up on Gerald Davies and J J Williams, Gareth Edwards and Barry John, just like every other youngster in the 1970s," he recalls. "I'm very proud of our rugby heritage, but past success has undoubtedly been a millstone around our neck.

"As a nation the Welsh are too melancholy. We tend to look back, while the rest of the world looks ahead. Now, at long last, we're putting the past into its appropriate place. What helps is that a lot of the young players breaking into the national team were barely born when we were the best in the world, and they certainly can't remember any of it. After all, it was 20 years ago. I'm even noticing it in the crowd. This can only be a good thing. It's allowing us to start again, without having to carry the baggage of previous successes."

Yet there is more to the Welsh upsurge than this. The return of former union players from league, one of the main reasons for Wales's demise in the 1980s and early 1990s, has given the country a much-needed boost. It is not just that good players have become available again, but that their experiences in the other code have put them in good stead for the new, expansive game the Welsh are playing.

"We've never really been suited to the tying-down, first-phase, scrummage the opposition off the park game that we tried to play in the 1980s. We can't match the physical presence of the southern hemisphere countries, for example. But what we can do is play total rugby, where we keep the ball in hand and moving quickly.

"This is where the influx of the league players, plus the introduction of the professional union game has helped us so much. I genuinely believe that the league players were surprised at how much the union game had moved on since they had left for league.

"The Welsh were absolutely devastated by what rugby league did to our game, but the players have returned to us now and brought some dynamism with them. You only had to be at Murrayfield to see this. Players like Scott Gibbs, Scott Quinnell and Allan Bateman were producing big hits on the opposition, and keeping the ball alive by not going down when tackled. They have helped to bring a great deal of strength and confidence back to the side, and it's all helped to put us in good stead for Saturday."

Having said all this, Evans is the first to underline that he and his team are still at the very beginning of a what is hoped will be an upward trend. He has seen too many false dawns during his time, and facing the Irish at Cardiff, an inexplicably difficult game for the Welsh in recent years, only rams home this point.

"The bottom line is that we played nicely against the USA, and played as well as I can remember in the second half at Murrayfield, but we're only talking about 40 minutes here. We have to start producing this standard consistently, and if anyone in the team even starts thinking about Triple Crowns or Five Nations' Championships, then they only have to look at our recent record in Cardiff against the Irish to motivate themselves and focus on the game ahead.

"What is pleasing, however, is that the team under Kevin Bowring are sticking to our style of play and to the players best suited for it. Even the public now understands that we may lose a few games before we really start to get it right, but in the long term it can only be good for the Welsh game on a world level."

Whether Evans himself will be around long enough to fully reap the fruits of all this is another issue altogether. Due to become a father in March, and a husband in the summer, he is toying with not touring with the Lions in South Africa this June, and realises that the end of his career is near. But not, as he is quick to insist, that near.

"Playing for this new-look Welsh team has given me a tremendous boost at a time in my career when I didn't really expect it," he admits. "I know I'm getting older, and I wish the ageing process would slow down a bit, but I reckon I've got a couple of years left in me.

"Look at someone like Steve Redgrave. He's going for his fifth Olympics, so there's no reason why I can't continue at the top for a little longer yet. Besides, I'm now heavily involved in every game I play in for Wales, and I'm enjoying my rugby far too much to seriously contemplate retirement. I think I'll even make myself available for the Lions tour. That's not to say I'll definitely go, if I'm selected, but I'm warming to the idea."

Ieuan Evans has not tasted too much success in a Welsh shirt over the years. Nobody can blame him now for living the moment.

Comments