Quinnell relights the fire

Paul Trow talks to a No 8 with unfinished business to settle for Wales
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The Independent Online
WHILE English football reels from the shock of an abdication, Welsh rugby is celebrating a long-awaited restoration. Scott Quinnell has returned after nearly three years away from the international arena, and the Welsh are praying that the new deluxe No 8, honed and hardened by rugby league, will prove even more effective than the previous model.

He is only 24, yet seems already to have packed two careers into his brief lifetime. If he were to retire tomorrow, he would be remembered as outstanding in both codes. But with a pedigree established by his father, Derek, and uncle, Barry John, both of whom flourished during the golden age of Welsh and British Lions rugby a quarter of a century ago, Quinnell has his union record still filed under "unfinished business".

When Wales won the Five Nations' Championship in 1994, much of the credit went to the young buffalo at the base of their scrum, a chip off the old bullock if ever there was. He scored the try of the tournament in the 24-15 victory over France in Cardiff, and a decade of doldrums looked over.

During the subsequent summer, though, with his wife Nicola and baby Samantha to support, Quinnell opted for the economic security of a pounds 500,000 transfer to the rugby league giants Wigan rather than the (possible) unpaid glory of a Welsh renaissance.

That the revival failed to materialise - Wales have won precious little since - was partly because of his departure. Now union, like league, is professional and Quinnell, who will become a father again next month, is back for good, having signed a five-year contract reportedly worth pounds 750,000 with ambitious Richmond last summer.

A hiccup over what was by comparison small change delayed his return to the colours until yesterday's game against the United States. But thanks to the sportswear manufacturer and Welsh supporter Jeff Cartwright, a sponsorship package has bridged the gap and the prodigal son at last has the Five Nations in his sights, starting with Saturday's visit to Murrayfield.

"It's good to be back but it's been a bit of a challenge," said Quinnell last week after training with his new team-mates, several of whom - Arwel Thomas, Christian Loader, Gareth Thomas, and Chris Charvis - he'd never even met before. "Getting to know them was a new experience. I have to get used to their different moves but three squad sessions ought to be enough.

He knew he had to play well against the US to keep his place. "But I'm excited about the Five Nations. There are several matches with that bit extra about them - England, Scotland, and we haven't beaten Ireland for a couple of seasons."

Actually, Wales haven't beaten Ireland in Cardiff since 1983 but, given the disarray in which the men in green find themselves, this year is surely their best chance of stopping the rot. In conversation, Quinnell reveals an instinct for caution which belies his adventurous play. "You can never pre-judge the Irish on form. On their day they can beat anybody, but as they've proved this season against Western Samoa and Italy they can also lose to anybody."

Over the last two years the second part of that statement has certainly applied to Wales in Quinnell's absence. "Scott has speed, power and an amazing side-step for such a big man. He added a lot to his game while he was in rugby league," said the former England flanker Andy Robinson, who became Bath's new coach last week.

Unusually for a 17st forward, Quinnell admits: "The thing I like best is running with the ball. But I'm much heavier now because the training in league is so different. I did more weights at Wigan and learned many new skills, but then the game I've come back to has changed completely. Apart from professionalism, it's quicker and you have more room when going forward.

"I'm enjoying London. Richmond have a good bunch of lads with quite a few Welsh faces, including my brother Craig. I certainly knew more of them than when I went to Wigan." One player he now knows well is his club captain and fellow back- rower Ben Clarke, a likely opponent when England visit Cardiff on 15 March.

"Ben and I mix well and it doesn't really matter which of us is at No 8. It's enjoyable playing with such a talented guy, but when we meet England I'll concentrate on my own game."

But for players such as Clarke and Quinnell, is the second division the ideal preparation for international rugby, not to mention next summer's Lions tour of South Africa?

"The second division in many respects is harder than the first, especially when you're up against sides like Coventry or Bedford. In any case, we always try to pick up the pace. My father went on three Lions tours and it would be great to get on one myself, but I'm not thinking beyond playing my best for club and country." The club side of things could not have gone better for English rugby's leading try scorer this season. And his presence, surely, must make Wales more competitive. But what about the Lions? Now that is unfinished business.

Number eights to appreciate: Andy Robinson, the new Bath coach, assesses the strengths of the key rivals

Ben Clarke

England

ENGLAND have three No 8s who have played well this season - Ben Clarke, Chris Sheasby and Steve Ojomoh. Sheasby had two good games and, on the strength of what he does from the base of the scrum, perhaps deserves a chance. But there should be a place for Clarke. There are a few options with Ben - he was successful for the British Lions at open side and can also play blind side. Richmond have mixed it around this season with both him and Quinnell playing at No 8. Clarke's strength is when he has the ball in his hands. He is so difficult to stop and is similar to Dean Richards in that he reads the game so well, popping up at the right time and place.

Rob Wainwright

Scotland

I AM amazed Scotland have dropped Eric Peters for lack of effort. He's match fit and always gives 120 per cent when he plays for Bath. I imagine they'll play Wainwright at No 8 and look for a mobile back row. Given the way Gregor Townsend plays, they'll want to attack the Welsh midfield. Wainwright can play anywhere in the back row and he led from the front superbly last season. The only question mark against him may be his match fitness as he has just come back from injury. One alternative might be to use Doddie Weir, normally a second row, at No 8. He's done it before, but they'll only pick him there if they think their locks will struggle to win line-out ball.

Eric Miller

Ireland

HE IS really an open-side flanker and Ireland will be exposed at the back of the line-out with him as No 8. Anthony Foley was the favourite to face the French as the new coach, Brian Ashton, wasn't expected to disrupt the side too much - he hadn't had time to study the players at great length. However, Ashton knows all about Miller having watched him playing for Leicester in his time as Bath coach and must have liked what he saw. Foley was the obvious choice as he is like Eric Peters in that he has a high work rate, tackles hard and runs a lot with the ball. If Miller doesn't prove the answer then Foley, Victor Costello or the locks Paddy Johns and Jeremy Davidson could step in.

Abdel Benazzi

France

HE'S world class, and was the player of last season's championship in many respects. He's a typical French forward - strong, powerful and very good with the ball in his hands. In some ways he's similar to Clarke and Quinnell, but he's probably involved in the game a little more than the other two. He's a great all-round player, but one area that has been fairly weak in French rugby in recent years is the defence from scrums. England, for instance, have been very successful against France over the last decade at picking the ball up at No 8 and driving forward. However, this is not really Benazzi's fault; it's a weakness of the back row as a whole.

Verdict of

the experts

Chris Rea

ALL dressed up but where are England going? Uncertainty over Jack Rowell's future and their tactical plan have cast doubts about their ability to match last season's success. Cardiff could again be the graveyard of English hopes against a Welsh side bolstered by the return of league stars such as Scott Gibbs, Alan Bateman and Scott Quinnell. If Wales can overcome the Scots they could go on to great things. A decline in traditional strengths, the lack of a reliable kicker and over-reliance on Gregor Townsend suggest a mediocre season for Scotland. A lack of direction and consistency has revealed old French failings, but I still take France to win with England second, Wales third, Scotland fourth and Ireland fifth.

Player to watch: Austin Healey (England). He is not in the squad yet but he is the most exciting player in the English game.

Jonathan Davies

WALES have an excellent chance. Tough games against Australia and South Africa in December have helped our squad focus. Competition for places hasn't been as fierce for years. England are always strong but have question marks over vital positions. France will be favourites but might be distracted by club priorities and have to go to Twickenham. Ireland never play as badly as they promise. Scotland have tough away matches and if Wales can win at Murrayfield on Saturday, we could be in the driving seat.

Player to watch: Abdel Benazzi (France). I expect him to confirm my opinion that he is the world's best back-row player.

Bill McLaren

I THINK this England side, although there's a touch of transition about it, could well be capable of doing the same kind of thing as the 1992 team: win the championship with a bit of flair and expression. Once the forwards have done their knocking down bit, they've got a tremendous back division to use, when you consider they've got to pick between Guscott, Carling and De Glanville in the centre.

Player to watch: Robert Howley (Wales). He's explosive and doesn't only serve well but asks questions of fringe defenders. He also has Gary Armstrong's ability to run fast with his body jack-knifed, ducking under the tackles of bigger men.

Mark Evans

ENGLAND for the championship but no Grand Slam this year - too many imbalances in the middle five for that but even so most opponents will find them too strong to cope with. Wales look promising on paper but will need to integrate a new back row and settle upon an effective style of play while Scotland appear far too weak up front. France and Ireland have underperformed dramatically in recent months, but both have taken on new coaches this week and may well respond positively, albeit inconsistently.

Player to watch: Tim Stimpson. (England) - if England play with the ball in hand.

Mark Evans is director

of rugby at Saracens

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