Llewellyn focused on the future

Chris Hewett meets the second-row forward who upset the authorities in Wales by leaving Neath and crossing the Severn Bridge to join Harlequins
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Gareth Llewellyn has always had his critics, but the doubters who portray the most-capped forward in Welsh rugby history as a lazy under- achiever have finally lost the argument. If Kevin Bowring, the national coach, was ever going to drop his prodigiously gifted but wayward second row, it would have been this week. Instead, Llewellyn pulls on the red shirt for the 49th time when France visit Cardiff for a friendly international tonight.

The urbane and articulate Bowring is nobody's idea of a one-eyed patriot, but he talks earnestly about "Welshifying" his side. "We made strides in last season's Five Nations' Championship by adopting a style that was not romantic, but attempted to practically fulfil what we could best offer as a culture and a race," he said. Llewellyn, the Neath captain, might fit snugly into that vision, but Llewellyn the Harlequins mercenary?

It is significant that while Bowring feels able to ignore, for the time being at least, some outstanding talents who had just returned to the valleys from rugby league - Scott Gibbs, David Young, Stuart Evans and the injured Richard Webster are all in the current Welsh squad - he is not willing to sacrifice his prodigal lock. Much to the chagrin of his detractors, Llewellyn will be the one exile on view at the Arms Park.

Back in the summer, his international future looked anything but secure. His decision to pursue a professional career on the wrong side of the Severn Bridge caused such a furore that the mild mannered Bowring was moved to lambast "the English millionaires who have set a market rate that is totally unrealistic" and raise the spectre of players earning "first- class wages for third-rate performances".

Bath remain convinced that brilliant Welsh scrum-half Rob Howley pulled out of a move to the Recreation Ground after last-minute threats from the Welsh hierarchy, although Bowring emphatically denies the use of strong- arm tactics.

What is clear is that while Harlequins may be shelling out a first-class salary for Llewellyn and his brother Glyn, they are getting more than their pound of flesh in return. "I'd liked the look of Gareth for a couple of years and when the game went professional he was one of the first players I approached," Dick Best, the Quins coach, said. "I don't regret it. He's doing everything right for us at the moment and as we find our feet with our new 15-man game, he'll get even better. Why? Because he's a class footballer.

"Now that he's out of that incestuous Welsh club environment, he's in the perfect position to establish himself alongside Martin Johnson as the best lock in British rugby."

Best's view that the Welsh overreacted to Llewellyn's move - "the way they went on, he might just as well have been signing to play for Mars" - is shared by the player himself. "At the time, it was a real pain," admits the 27-year-old, who captained his country on their 1993 tour of Zimbabwe and Namibia and then on three occasions as a stand-in for the injured Ieuan Evans two season ago. "But I was convinced the switch would be good for me and I knew that legally, there was nothing anyone could do to stop me.

"The financial package was obviously a big temptation but my friendship with Jason Leonard [the Quins captain and England prop] was also a deciding factor.

"I'm a full-time rugby player now and as a result, my fitness is probably better than it has ever been. I'm keen and focused and I feel in good shape. This is a big season for all of us. There are high-profile tour games to look forward to and a Lions trip to push for and I very much want to be a part of everything that's going.

"Neath to Harlequins sounds like it should be a real culture shock and in some ways it has been, of course. But Quins are trying to do the same sort of things we were attempting at Neath last season - fast, dynamic, 15-man rugby for the full 80 minutes - so in that sense, I feel at home. Also, we are trying to keep the ball in play for far longer, which is one of the things Wales came up against when we toured Australia in the summer.

"As far as I'm concerned, tonight's game will tell us how much we have learned from that trip; we encountered new standards of continuity and physical commitment in the Tests against the Wallabies and while a lot of people criticised our performance against the Barbarians last month, I believe we made a certain amount of progress in taking some of the most important lessons on board. The French will provide a new benchmark."