Humphreys is boxing clever

Tim Glover finds the Wales captain in combative mood to face the French
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The Independent Online
Wales have lost eight Five Nations matches in a row and tomorrow against France in Cardiff face the prospect of a second consecutive whitewash. Some people welcome the idea of being written off and attempt to use it as an inspirational ploy. Jonathan Humphreys, the Wales captain, is different.

"I don't like being called an underdog, never have," he said. "The All Blacks go into every game as favourites and expect to win whatever the pressure. If you're an underdog you haven't achieved anything." The definition seems to fit Wales but Humphreys begs to differ. Actually, he does not beg at all. He is quite adamant that Wales have been short-changed.

"If we had been beaten by sides that were much better than us, then I would be worried," Humphreys said. "We feel that given the rub of the green we could have won every game. The problem is that we have made too many basic errors, but at least we have tried to create things. If the Five Nations was down to the likes of England, it would be a very boring championship. It is easy to play a static game and not risk losing.

"England didn't create anything against us and were gifted two tries, and we should have beaten Scotland and Ireland. Not so long ago Scotland lost nine matches in a row and were then involved in grand slams. It's a very thin line between victory and defeat and we have one foot across that line. There's a lot of talent, a lot of pace and once we get the blend right up front things will happen... I'm sure we'll be part of something special."

It has been a bewildering nine months for the 26-year-old Cardiff hooker. He went to the World Cup in South Africa last summer as the No 2, won his first cap in an impressive display against New Zealand and then played in a mind-numbing defeat against Ireland in Johannesburg.

"I felt so embarrassed I didn't want to go back to Wales," Humphreys said. "It was as if we'd let everybody down. It was the lowest point of my career. We played very negatively. There was no flair, no imagination, no passion, no zest. After winning my first cap I should have felt proud, not embarrassed. I thought to myself that, if I ever had another chance, I would never feel like that again."

His chance came quickly and, with it, promotion as captain. Within a few months Wales returned to Ellis Park with a younger team to face the world champions and, although they were beaten 40-11 by South Africa, the performance was not without elements of flair and passion. "The general feeling was that we would suffer untold damage," Humphreys said, "but after 60 minutes we were in with a shout."

As returns go it was not quite in the General MacArthur class but Humphreys, who had captained Wales' Development XV and his club, had shown enough to confirm his leadership qualities. "I don't think people realise how far the game in Wales had fallen. It was a long, long way. People still hark back to the good old days. They're long gone. It's a totally different game. At Cardiff things were in a hell of a mess and it took us two years to turn it round."

He thinks one reason for the decline is the insularity of Welsh leagues. "We know how to play against each other and I think the Anglo-Welsh league will be brilliant, not just for us but English clubs as well. I played for Cardiff for five years before playing against anyone outside Wales. I never played against Brian Moore, which is something I'd loved to have done."

Humphreys leads by example and, if he would give an underdog a clip round the ear, well, that is probably his father's influence. Colin Humphreys won an ABA welterweight title in 1960 at the age of 17 before turning professional. "He should have gone to the Olympics but the guy he beat was chosen ahead of him," his son said. "He was brought up in the valleys and he's very competitive. He always taught me to believe I was as good as anybody else and not to let anyone talk down to me. I used to follow him down to the gym and my ambition was to be a boxer. He always said that boxers were the fittest sportsmen."

Humphreys does most of his serious training at an amateur boxing club in Porthcawl (he has his own key) and stamina exercises with a skipping rope and punchbag have been adopted by Dave Clark, the WRU's fitness instructor.

This season Humphreys lost his mentor, Alex Evans, the Cardiff and Wales coach who returned to Australia to take up a national post - but not before criticising the discipline of the Welsh squad during the World Cup. "It was misconstrued," Humphreys said. "The dirttrackers went on the beer and let off a lot of steam but if anything we were perhaps too disciplined. We never went anywhere, never did anything and it was a fairly boring trip."

In May Wales tour Australia where Humphreys, who talks to Evans regularly on the phone, will have a reunion. "Before leaving Alex spotted a pair of brown brogues in a shop window and I have to remember to take them out to him. He had a massive influence on my career. I miss him."

Kevin Bowring, who has filled Evans's shoes, worked with Humphreys in the A side. "We realised we can't play a slamming game centred around a big back row," Humphreys, a rugby development officer with the WRU, said. "We haven't got the players for that type of game. We have to play with a lot more fluency. That is our strength. Alex and Kevin have similar philosophies. Kevin's more of a thinker, more diplomatic. This year we have taken big steps forward, not just in the type of rugby we are trying to play but in the attitude of the players."

Even so, following the latest defeat against Ireland in Dublin, Humphreys experienced a feeling that he thought had been buried in Johannesburg. "Ireland played a very tight game and again we gave tries away," Humphreys said. "When you lose there is a temptation to change everything without looking at the specific reasons. We've strengthened our scrum, we'll have more variety in the lineout but we're not going to change our style. We're professionals and I think we have a responsibility to the public. We're committed to a wide game."

The recall of Neil Jenkins for Arwel Thomas, who took a hammering early on against Ireland, would suggest a compromise in that commitment. "I don't think Arwel is looking for excuses. He was very down but perhaps it was the right decision to take him out at this point. A lot of people underestimate Neil. He's a very, very good player. He's labelled with up-and-under rugby but he can play a different type of game. He feels he can be a major asset. There's competition for every position."

When Jonathan Davies left rugby league for Cardiff the move was hailed as the return of the prodigal son."He is an enigmatic figure and everybody jumps on the Jonathan bandwagon," Humphreys said, "but he has played too few games and this is probably not the right time to bring him back. Reputation alone won't get him into the Welsh side."

With Adrian Davies at stand-off, Jonathan's opportunities at Cardiff have been restricted mainly to centre. "He doesn't feel comfortable in the centre and he's now going head to head with Adrian for the outside- half spot, and it's for them to sort out," Humphreys said. "People in Wales have been looking for a saviour but it's not one man who can save us. It's not fair on Jonathan, not fair on the others in the squad."

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