Rugby League: Hughes fit to meet his mentor

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The Independent Online
SCRUM-HALVES are on their own - the goalies of rugby football. You may think that applies more to full-backs, but at a pinch they can pop up anywhere among the backs. Take Blanco. The same goes for wings and outside-halves. And France have proved that even hookers, for all the dark secrets of their trade, can be replaced by props. But scrum-halves are the indispensable specialists.

'I've only ever played four games in other positions,' says Dewi Morris, the Welsh patron saint of the England rugby side. 'At stand-off in the school team, at open-side flanker, and when I was brought on, on the wing, by the British Lions at Southland. It's funny, you get so used to following the ball in every aspect of the game that even when you stand in for someone in training, you still find yourself homing in on it all the time.'

His pride in being a scrum- half, and his absorption in the craft, is transparent. 'For me it's the best position there is because you have your hands on the ball so much. Though it can also be the worst position. You've got to make the decisions, and if those decisions are wrong, who's the person they blame? It's the link between the forwards and the backs.'

He has carried the can before - when England lost at Cardiff in 1989, largely due to the sniping tactical kicks of his opposite number, Robert Jones. And not until later today will he know for sure whether he will be running out or sitting on the bench at Murrayfield next Saturday. He badly wants to play opposite Gary Armstrong, now back in the Scottish side. 'He's a wily character, a nuggety character, who never seems to get flapped. Even if he kicks the ball out on the full, it doesn't bother him. He's got strength. He's very tenacious. But he'll find it very different from what it was. Scotland are struggling a bit, and it all starts with the forwards, the front five. Still, in 80 minutes their season can be turned around, and though I've got great regard for him, it's up to us to make sure that the fairy tale doesn't happen for him or for Scotland.'

If Morris had played in the England side which beat the All Blacks in the autumn, there wouldn't be much question about his selection. But he had to drop out with 'flu', which was later diagnosed as exercise-induced asthma, a fairly common complaint among top athletes. In his place the young Bristol scrum-half Kyran Bracken became the hero of the hour and 20 minutes when, after being stamped on by the New Zealand flanker Jamie Joseph, he soldiered on gallantly and to great effect.

'Kyran played fantastically, and he's probably suffering for the braveness he showed on the field,' Morris says ungrudgingly. So what if Bracken, who is back in training with the England squad, gets picked ahead of him. 'Well, fair enough. I'll be the first person to shake his hand and get on with it. Don't get me wrong, I'll be very, very disappointed. But what's the point in sulking. I'd have to come back and train even harder and play even better because I've got my sights on the World Cup.'

These aren't pious words. Though hurt at being made the scapegoat in 1989, he reacted in the same positive way. He took out his frustration on the rugby balls he passed and kicked in practice to sharpen his technical skills.

Morris is a big man - a six- footer, take half an inch, and 13st 7lb - sandy-haired, open-featured and immediately likeable. Articulate and direct, but not given to wearing his sensitivity on his sleeve. So since ambiguity isn't part of his nature, let's first lay to rest the Welsh question. He was born nearly 30 years ago in Crickhowell where, in a valley to the south of the Black Mountains, his father has a 75-acre sheep and dairy farm. His mother was born in the old, disputed Monmouthshire, which makes her as English as, say, Aneurin Bevan. But like the county, that's neither here nor there. As Morris puts it, 'I don't disinherit my Welshness one iota.'

Rugby has never been over-pedantic about nationality. Many of the founding fathers of the Welsh game were West Country immigrants. Frank Hancock, inventor of the four-threequarter system, came from Somerset. The great Gwyn Nicholls, 'in everything except birth, a true rugby son of Wales', was Gloucestershire- born. And what of Rupert Moon, indisputably English, though a naturalised Welshman if ever there was one?

Prince Obolensky was still a Russian when, to the displeasure of Edward, Prince of Wales, he was picked for England and scored his celebrated try against the All Blacks in 1936. And he has not been the only cuckoo in that nest. Ironically Jonathan Callard, the present England full-back, played in the same Gwent schools side as Morris. But if his name diverts attention from his Welsh background, Dewi's attracts it.

He has had to put up with abuse and hate mail from the bigots, but has learnt to ignore it. 'The only thing that annoys me is when it hurts my family, my mum and dad especially. I've played against the best scrum-halves in the world, in some of the best stadiums, and become a British Lion. And that's the pinnacle, as far as I'm concerned, apart from winning a Grand Slam or a World Cup. I'd just like to be treated as an international sportsman who happens to play for England, and I expect England will treat Rupert in the same way.'

Anyway the point is that Morris didn't adopt England, England adopted him. And that came about only because he failed one of his A-levels. This stopped him going on from Brecon High School to take a sports coaching course at the South Glamorgan Institute. After that would it have been Cardiff? Wales? Impossible to know, though he says that he had no early thoughts of playing international rugby. Instead he enrolled for an HND in business studies at Crewe and Alsager College. After which, since there weren't any prospects of work at home, he took a job as production controller in a Warrington distillery. His career settled, he joined a junior club, Winnington Park, at Northwich where, having married last August, he lives with his wife Penny, a textile designer.

Three seasons later he moved on to Liverpool-St Helens, and in less than a year of first-class rugby had shinned up the rigging like a cabin boy. First a conspicuous success in a charity match. Then selection for Lancashire, the North and England A. Finally England v Australia in 1988, where he scored the first of his five Test tries. 'I was just very lucky to be picked by England at a time when Wales neither knew me nor wanted me.'

Mike Slemen, then coach of Liverpool, now with the England squad, could describe him as having the strength and impact of Gareth Edwards, the knock-down tackling of Terry Holmes. It was only after the Wales game, which wrapped up the 1989 Five Nations, that criticism of his passing and kicking technique bubbled to the surface.

As he had risen, so he fell, at one point dropping to third choice behind Steve Bates and Richard Hill. Then, when Hill was reinstated, he had to spend two seasons on the bench as his understudy, learning from a rival who became a close friend.

The interval wasn't wasted. Morris redoubled his training, and even though he couldn't match the perfectionism of Hill's 200 practice passes a day - 'the trouble is finding someone to stand with you' - he spent what time he could improving the speed of his passing and the accuracy of his kicking into the box. 'That's become a major part of the scrum- half's art as the game has developed away from the scrum to the line-out. Putting a box-kick up in the air for four or five seconds so that your wing can come on to the opposing wing and hold him with the ball. Then you're on a rumble and a roll.'

What else Morris did was leave Liverpool to develop his skills behind Orrell's solid pack. By now it's hard to say whether it's Morris or Orrell who are more in the other's debt. Though he had to sit out the 1991 World Cup, his perseverance was rewarded when England brought him back for the rest of the season. Now he can only hope that missing November's All Blacks match was just a blip in his progress.

While he appears relaxed, Morris admits to the stress he has been under. About 18 months ago he left the distillery: 'We were pushing through up to a million and a half cases of spirits a year, and I had to supervise the bottling, capping, labelling on 14 production lines. Come Saturday I didn't know where we were and who we were playing.' Now he is head of promotions at Hallbridge Clothing in Woolston, where he still has to meet targets, he can take the odd hour off to train.

Even so, for the next 10 weeks, with internationals, key league matches (Orrell are still in the relegation zone), cup ties and squad sessions interleaved, his weekends off will amount to Sunday evenings. 'And then you have to face 40 hours work on Monday morning. It's no wonder that international players are retiring earlier.'

Apart from making the World Cup, Morris also aims to captain Orrell next season 'to thank them for what they have done for me'. Then he'll retire, winding down with one last season of social rugby at Winnington Park.

'I'll admit the joy level does go down a bit. There's nothing better than coming back to the changing room after you've won. That's why you do it. But over the last three weeks' training at Orrell it's been very cold. You start with a weight session, then change in the unheated weights room. Afterwards you go outside, and it's windy and dark and invariably piddling down. There's six inches of mud, and you think to yourself, 'I won't miss this a bit when I retire.'

'When I'm sitting at the end of the club bar with a fat cigar and a fat tummy, I'll promise you this, I'll never criticise anyone. That's because I know how hard it is.'

(Photographs omitted)

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