Prodigies who carry the burden of hope

'Rip Van Winkle' Humphreys ready to wake up Ireland
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The Independent Online
David Humphreys was warming up for London Irish in the fifth round of the Pilkington Cup against Leeds at Headingley last Saturday afternoon when he received word of a higher calling. Ireland had chosen him to play against France at Parc des Princes today and, once again, they had left it late. At the age of 24, in a season when stand-offs in the Five Nations' Championship are so fresh-faced they need to carry their birth certificates around to get a drink at the bar, Humphreys wins his first cap but his coaches believe he should have been a seasoned international by now.

The Ireland selectors finally got the hint when Humphreys played a blinder for Ulster against New South Wales 10 days ago, scoring 17 points in an unlikely victory. They could have met that night and announced the team to play France the following day. Instead they waited for another four days and Humphreys all but had the liniment on and his gumshield in when he was told the good news in Leeds.

New caps traditionally get the dispensation of a Saturday off before their debut and Clive Woodward, the London Irish coach, had no hesitation in telling Humphreys to go and sit in the stand. Humphreys was prepared to play but Woodward would not hear of it.

It was a strange, not to say unprofessional, way for the Irish Rugby Football Union to conduct affairs and even stranger was their subsequent edict to Humphreys to refuse to give any interviews to the press. The gag was imposed by the manager, Pat Whelan, on the grounds that there is "enough pressure on the player already."

Humphreys was as bemused by the D-Notice as everybody else and the move only succeeded in insulting his intelligence.

Humphreys came out of cotton wool a long time ago. Born in Belfast, the son of a consultant surgeon who played for Coleraine and Dungannon, Humphreys was educated at Ballymena Academy and Queen's University where he graduated in law. He captained Ireland schools before representing Ireland Universities, Ulster, Ireland under-21 and Ireland A for whom he has made five appearances.

Last year he went up to Oxford University, where he is studying for a special diploma in social studies, and in December, before a crowd of 70,000 at Twickenham, almost won the Varsity match single-handed for the Dark Blues. He scored all Oxford's 19 points including a try, a facsimile of which he produced against New South Wales last week, but Cambridge prevailed 21-19 with the help of a controversial penalty try and a score in the last minute.

"I felt relief, then disbelief, then absolute devastation," Humphreys said. For a cool customer, described by his team-mates as a Rip Van Winkle on account of the fact that he rarely rises before lunchtime, this was a novel ride on an emotional rollercoaster. Cambridge were expected to coast to victory but the outstanding performance of Humphreys came as no surprise to Woodward or Lynn Evans, the Oxford coach.

After the cream had left London Irish following relegation, including Paul Burke, a player consistently rated higher than Humphreys by the Irish selectors, Woodward went in search of a stand- off. "I went over to Ireland and asked people who was the best fly-half in the country," Woodward said. "They all said Humphreys." Woodward had never seen him play but he signed him up for the Exiles, and that was before Humphreys' tour de force at Twickenham.

"It's the players who really know who can play and who can't," Woodward said. "I soon realised that the kid had it, big time. There is no need to coach him. It seems that Ireland have been a bit worried about his defence but the tendency is always to list a player's weakness rather than his strengths. He was fantastic against New South Wales but still there were people who said that he shouldn't be put in against France. It's total bollocks. The bigger the game the better it is for him."

Evans, a Welshman who has been at Oxford since 1962, also sounds like a founder member of the Humphreys appreciation society. "I come from a country where No 10s are legendary but Humph is one of the most naturally talented I've ever seen," Evans said."Too often stand-offs are programmed but he can read what's going on around him and can crystallise a team by instinct. It was not a vintage Oxford side and he had to play alongside a Frenchman, a South African, all sorts, and although he was not in the comfort of his own back-yard he blossomed.

"He's a small, not particularly well-built lad who looks as if he could be blown away by a strong wind but as soon as the pressure comes on he just responds to it and you don't get that with many players. He is a delightful bloke to work with, so self-effacing about things he's almost apologetic but on the field he exudes confidence, even arrogance. There's a steely competitiveness. At Oxford he always rose to the biggest challenges."

The Varsity match aside, one of the biggest was against Neath at The Gnoll last November when Oxford, in the middle of a dismal run, beat the Welsh All Blacks 26-22. "He really came of age in that match," Evans said. "He took on their back row and got in behind them and you don't see many fly-halves having a go at the Neath pack. I don't think Parc des Princes will worry him. He is not the sort of player to freeze."

Humphreys admits that his form was disappointing for Ballymena last season and that the change of scenery has been "like a new lease of life for me. Playing with people who have a different style seems to have improved my all-round game and training every day at Oxford has also helped me to iron out a few problems."

Humphreys joined London Irish, who have a chance of promotion to the First Division, after being persuaded by Woodward. "The way he approaches the game was the real attraction," Humphreys said. "His ideas are so different to anything I'd been used to."

In the summer Humphreys has to decide on his future and he has three choices: stay at Oxford for another year, return to Belfast and qualify as a solicitor at the firm of Mike Gibson, the former Ireland and Lions centre or remain in England and simply play rugby. He intends to sleep on it.