Rivals united by the half chance

FIVE NATIONS' CHAMPIONSHIP: Howley has the heart for heights; Wales' new No 9 has travelled a long way to make his debut today. Ken Jones met him
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Robert Howley could not wait for Saturday to come but he wanted Tuesday to last for ever; the back-slapping thrill of his first Welsh cap, a dream realised. "Plenty of people told me that it wasn't a question of if, only when," he said, "but the years roll by and you begin to wonder. Someone breaking through to make the position his own or a bad injury and that's it. So far but not far enough."

It was late in the day, and we were alone in a small conference room at the civic offices in Bridgend where Howley works for the recreation department. It was warm in the room, and the new Welsh scrum-half looked neat in slacks, a Persil-white shirt and club tie.

Leaning back, Howley let his eyes wander to the ceiling. "You know what?" he said. The question startled me. I had been sitting there, studying Howley's face wondering how he felt, and now he was coming out with it.

"What?" I said.

"I don't want the moment to pass," he said slowly.

That is one of the appealing things about Howley. If caught up in the scamper of change - a provisional contract with Saracens is said to be worth pounds 50,000 a year to him - he finds the thrill of selection by Wales all consuming. It was this and some bad experiences talking.

Howley is minus two cartilages and was fortunate to avoid the immobilising effects of a completely torn cruciate ligament in his left knee, the injury that has visibly reduced Paul Gascoigne's effectiveness. "The surgeon discovered a 45 per cent tear," he said. "Just enough, in fact by only five per cent, so that the damage could be repaired without using synthetic fibres."

Even so, Howley suffered enough to seek the help of a faith healer at nearby Kenfig Hill, and is convinced now that he has fully recovered.

There was a psychological problem, too, resulting from the brief period he spent playing for Cardiff. "When Alex Evans and Mike Hall persuaded me to go there, it turned out to be a big mistake," the Bridgend captain said. "Cardiff is a very big club, perhaps the biggest in rugby with all that history and tradition. Because things didn't work out for me there people questioned my temperament but they didn't understand."

Finding himself second choice behind Andrew Moore, ironically the scrum- half he has replaced in the Welsh team, Howley was soon back with Bridgend. If not the most encouraging phase of Howley's career, it taught him plenty. "Thinking about that experience now, I learned a lot about myself at Cardiff. It was a leap too far and that enters my mind when I think about the changes happening in rugby. They have come about so quickly that it makes sense to take a step back and consider things carefully. But the only thing now is playing against England at Twickenham."

Not ideal for a new cap, you may think. Howley will have none of it. "Just to play for Wales against anybody anywhere would be a thrill in itself," he said, "but this is special. And how can anyone believe it would be a good one to miss? It will be a new experience for most of us, so it isn't as though we're going there with memories of being defeated, that 'here we go again' feeling. England have been criticised for not showing more flair and it will be interesting if they can be tempted into playing open rugby."

In what suggests an attempt to resurrect traditional virtues of handling and running, the Welsh coach, Kevin Bowring, has chosen a scrum-half with explosive pace, fast hands and the physical strength to withstand the attentions of England's back row while protecting his diminutive half- back partner, Arwel Thomas.

Howley, 25, is bigger than you imagine. Standing 5ft 10in he is, at 13st 4lb, only five or six pounds lighter than Henry Cooper was in 1966 when challenging Muhammad Ali for the world heavyweight championship.

This astonished Howley. "Hard to believe," he said. "Fact," I replied.

An inquisitive profile and lively eyes add to the impression of alertness Howley leaves in your mind. What you sense too is anticipation rather than tension. He has played at Twickenham before, turning out there for Swansea University against Cardiff University while studying for the BSc he gained in business management. "Of course, it's going to be different, the atmosphere of a big crowd, the great excitement of an international match, especially for a Welshman going out against England, but those are the things you dream about."

A fable in Welsh rugby tells of how Barry John and Gareth Edwards first got their act together - "Gareth, you chuck it, I'll catch it" - the glorious simplicity of their genius. Over the past few days, becoming fully conversant with Thomas's game will have been a more studied process for the Welsh scrum-half but the partnership appeals to him. "I think we might surprise people," he said. "Expectations in Wales are not very high, but there is a lot of confidence in the squad and if England take up the challenge it could be a high scoring game. And if I can occupy the English back row it will allow Arwel opportunities to express himself."

In view of events over the last six or seven years, Bowring's apparent eagerness to exploit the running of his backs might seem far-fetched to Welsh supporters, many conveying the impression that they are bleakly sceptical.

An odd truth about sport is that some teams make their greatest games when nobody believes in them and the worst when they are favourites. That Wales are very much the underdogs today will not have interfered with Howley's sleep pattern.

"It wasn't easy to nod off last night after Kevin told me that I was in the team," he said, "and I still haven't got my feet back on the floor. I keep thinking about all the hopes I held out for myself, how injuries could so easily ended it all. And now I've been picked."

When Howley walked me to the door there was a spring in his stride and a song in his heart - and that is how it should be...

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