Leader in the front line

FIVE NATIONS Chris Hewett applauds the captaincy of the Wales hooker Jo nathan Humphreys
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ALEX EVANS knew a thing or two when, in almost his last decisive act as coach of Wales, he handed Jonathan Humphreys the national captaincy and told him that if anyone could restore an ounce of pride after a shambles of a World Cup in South Africa, he could.

Why Humphreys? asked a country still in rugby mourning. Agreed, he was a good, hard, committed hooker, highly rated the length and breadth of the Principality. On the other hand, he had built his reputation surrounded by the strongest pack in Welsh rugby - indeed, as good a unit as any in Britain. An easy ride at club level was hardly the best preparation for the highly political position to which Evans had appointed him.

Besides, Humphreys had only two Test appearances to his name - a 34-9 drubbing at the hands of New Zealand and a truly calamitous 24-23 defeat by Ireland that ended Welsh interest in the World Cup and raised serious doubts over their ability to re-establish any sort of international credibility.

But Evans, a tough-minded Australian with crystal clear ideas on the importance of firm leadership, detected things in Humphreys that the player admits not to seeing in himself. "I chose him because he was incredibly strong-willed, the sort who would flatly refuse to be beaten and would never dream of letting anyone down," the Wallaby recalled. "If he thought anything he did off the field would undermine his team, he would be ashamed of himself."

It is a mark of Humphreys's success that, with the clear exception of Scotland, the Welsh are now the most cohesive and integrated side in the Five Nations. Evans returned from South Africa utterly exasperated at his side's ill-discipline - he complained of late-night drinking bouts and an unacceptably lax approach to training. In Humphreys, he saw someone who, by the strength of his own popularity, could curb the worse excesses and pull a dejected side together.

That he has done. When the sharply intelligent Kevin Bowring replaced Evans as coach in the run-up to this year's championship, he wasted no time at all in reaffirming the 25-year-old rugby development officer as his skipper. Humphreys is no austere practitioner who insists on putting distance between himself and his troops. He is, conversely, the very first man out of the trenches, his Welsh heart clearly visible on his sleeve. He is an emotional captain. In that sense, he has more in common with the romantics of Llanelli than the more pragmatic folk commonly found in the Arms Park.

If defeat against England earlier this month wounded him, last week's setback against Scotland had him on the brink of tears. "It was my first game as skipper in front of my home crowd and they turned up in their thousands to support us," he said. "They deserved a result. I'm bitterly disappointed that we failed to deliver.

"Sides become great by suffering and reacting to that suffering. You have to experience feelings of complete dejection, if only to make yourself stronger. You need to be able to say to yourself: 'This is awful. This is never going to happen to me again,' and that is what we are saying to ourselves right now."

As Humphreys approaches an encounter at Lansdowne Road that may decide the wooden spoon the whole of Wales is hoping there will be temporary relief to the suffering.