Rugby Union: Evans makes light of leadership load: A captain at the peak of his powers leads resurgent Wales against Japan on Saturday. Steve Bale reports

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The Independent Online
SIPPING from the poisoned chalice otherwise known as the captaincy of Wales has tended to have a lethal effect. A bit like ancient Rome, really. Look what it did to Paul Thorburn and Robert Jones, to name but two. On the other hand, look what it is doing for Ieuan Evans.

You could scarcely say Wales had flourished under the leadership of Llanelli's Lions wing but the man himself is at his peak, not simply in the profound respect he is universally accorded but in his own personal form. Others let the Welsh captaincy get on top of them, and were buried; Ieuan Evans is not only alive but kicking, running and passing.

This is a measure of his temperament as much as his ability and Saturday's game against Japan at Cardiff Arms Park will be a more relaxed reintroduction to the captaincy than anything during the 13 previous times he has done the job. Against such moderate opposition the only pressure is to run up a half- century and it would be typically Welsh to carp if the score were stuck on 49.

'Everyone you talk to thinks that way,' Evans sighed, but at least this is different from the pessimism that has tended to attach to his teams. Wales, he insists, are getting better quickly, and even if this is the umpteenth time this has been said there are, he also insists, more grounds for saying it now than there were at any other time during his two years as captain.

'This is safe ground,' he said. 'The performances over the past six months, whether for Wales or the Lions, have shown that there is a solid base of class players here.' Not least there was Evans's own performances for the British Isles in New Zealand where, released from captaincy's cares and surrounded by companions of the highest calibre, he flourished as never before. So, for that matter, did his compatriot, Scott Gibbs.

For Evans, 29, it was the impeccable conclusion to a season when the serious injuries of other years - particularly a continually dislocating shoulder - were at last forgotten. Twenty-nine tries for Llanelli as they did the league and cup double as well as beating the Australians, two for Wales - including the one that beat England - British and Welsh player-of-the-year awards: it was as if all these were a preparation for the inspiration of his play in New Zealand.

And while that tour was going on Wales were going unbeaten through their restorative visit to Zimbabwe and Namibia culminating in a 56-17 rout of the South African Barbarians in Windhoek. More of the same against the Japanese on Saturday and then the Canadians next month and Wales might even dare to aspire to a decent Five Nations run in the new year.

'It was a very positive tour. I wasn't there, so I've had to catch up on the way Wales will be trying to play this season, but many of the players who did so well in Africa are still in the team and that continuity of selection will greatly help me as captain.

'These games against Japan and Canada are key internationals for us and if we don't fully exploit the opportunity they provide it will be very disappointing.'

The biggest games Wales face this season are certainly not against the Japanese or Canada, nor even against England or the other championship countries, but against Portugal and Spain in May. It is Wales's penalty for failing to reach the quarter-finals of the 1991 World Cup that they have to get through the qualifying process. Next autumn there will be two more fixtures, probably against Romania and Italy, to determine their group in 1995.

'This is a huge season for us,' Evans said. 'It's absolutely crucial for the future of the game in Wales that we qualify for the World Cup finals and we simply cannot contemplate anything else. At the same time we can't let our concern about those games affect our positive style and outlook.'

Now that really would be the ultimate captain's indignity: to lead Wales out of the World Cup before the final stages, and Evans has not been helped by the Welsh Rugby Union's charitable agreement to play both matches away from home. Still, at least Iberia is not Western Samoa, whose defeat of Wales in the 1991 World Cup ranks high among Evans's most painful memories.

Wales were led in Africa by Gareth Llewellyn, the rapidly maturing Neath captain, who, as a lock, is rather nearer the heart of the action than Evans the wing. Not least because of their unfamiliarity, Evans would have enjoyed making all those victory speeches. His Welsh teams have won only four of his 13 games as captain.

'It's been an illuminating experience which has taught me a lot of things over the past couple of years,' he said. 'I can honestly say I've enjoyed it through good and bad and I'd like to think it's made me a better person as well as a better player.

'I would rather soak in the plaudits that follow a victorious result than make excuses for a poor game by Wales. Who wouldn't? But I think I've managed to cope. I enjoyed not having the extra responsibility when I was in New Zealand with the Lions but now that that's over I've no qualms about being captain again. My shoulders are broad enough - well, one of them is anyway.'

This is an example of black humour stimulated by Evans's unfortunate injury history. In between his 36 caps since 1987, he has dislocated his right shoulder five times and had two operations, each of which resulted in lay-offs lasting eight months.

Evans estimates that the various absences have deducted three and a half years and more than 20 caps from his international career. Otherwise he would already have left Ken Jones's Wales wing record of 44 in the distance.

A record that beckons more immediately is as Wales captain. Only Arthur Gould, a legendary figure who led Wales in 18 games from 1889-97, did it more often and, other things like the selectors' favour being equal, Evans will surpass him against England in March.

That would give him a place of permanent honour in Welsh rugby's pantheon - and even his opponents at Twickenham would applaud that. As every one of the English Lions who accompanied Evans the wing to New Zealand would gladly affirm, it couldn't happen to a nicer guy.

(Photograph omitted)