Rugby Union / Five Nations Focus: Jenkins aiming for a perfect No 10: Wales' unkempt goalkicker has smartened up his act. Tim Glover reports

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The Independent Online
IF Neil Jenkins slots a penalty dead centre through the posts it is worth not three points but 10. That is what he awards himself in his game within the game. Not so long ago his critics marked him so low down, on technical merit and style, he wondered whether he would ever break the ice.

Yet Jenkins has seemingly evolved from fall guy to son of dragon in the shake of a tail. Wales has found its No 10

although not everybody recognises the fact. When Jenkins went to Cardiff on Tuesday for a spot of kicking practice they would not 'for some pathetic reason' let him on to the Arms Park. He had to drive back to Llantwit Vardre in search of a set of posts. Would they have treated Barry John the same?

Part of the trouble with Jenkins is his appearance. He looks awkward, unkempt, as if he had just got out of bed. Then there is his hair, carrot-like in colour, which never seems to have been on nodding terms with a comb. He could have been Ginger in Just William's gang. Jenkins was, he admits, hyperactive - 'I was terrible. I had visions, dreams. I was always thinking about what was going to happen. I worried too much. I got fired up.' His excitable condition was not helped by the fact that Wales messed him around, sometimes picking him at fly- half, sometimes at centre, once at full-back and sometimes not at all. No World Cup for him. Pontypridd offered to switch him to centre but he refused.

Jenkins is a fly-half, always has been, but the Welsh selectors were not convinced. Since Jonathan Davies went to rugby league in 1988 Wales have used eight players at stand-off. It was not so much that the fly- half factory was on a three-day week, more that there was nobody on the conveyor belt in charge of quality control. 'Playing at centre put me in good stead,' Jenkins said. 'I understand the type of pressures others are under.'

After beating England last year it was downhill all the way for Wales. 'Although there were 14 other players on the park I seemed to take the blame,' Jenkins said. 'I didn't understand. It wasn't fair. The BBC were getting at me and I let them know what I thought of them. I'd had enough.' He provided his critics with more poison ink when he was accused of stamping in the Welsh Cup semi-final against Llanelli and was sent off early in the match, effectively destroying Pontypridd's chances.

At Pontypridd Jenkins found the support he needed. Julian Baker was a fan on the terraces at Sardis Road until Dennis John, the Pontypridd coach, brought him into the fold as fitness adviser and father confessor. Baker is a lecturer in sports physiology at the Cardiff Institute of Higher Education. A former European karate champion, Baker, and the Wales scrum-half, Rupert Moon, have taken the hyper out of Jenkins's temperament.

'He was getting a tremendous amount of bad publicity,' Baker said. 'The crowd was getting to him and he had psychological problems with his goalkicking.' Baker got to work on mental rehearsal techniques. 'When Neil kicks at goal he imagines there's a black box behind him. He puts all his negative thoughts into the box and closes the lid. That gets rid of the crowd. His concentration is then total. If the ball goes through the centre of the

uprights he gets 10 points. If it's just inside the left or right posts he gets five points. He's more relaxed. He's developing every month and the best is to come. He's a very strong character.'

Jenkins, first capped at 19 and still only 22, wins his 20th cap tomorrow against France, his 13th at fly-half. He has scored 170 points, 70 in his last four internationals including a world-record equalling eight penalties in the defeat against Canada in Cardiff. For Pontypridd this season he has amassed 244 points in 16 Heineken League matches.

Jenkins has modelled his goalkicking on the All Black, Grant Fox, a player he has never met. 'I've watched him a lot and he's the best there is.' Fox takes six steps back, Jenkins four and then two to the side. The process can take as long as 90 seconds. Jenkins uses sand instead of a tee and for away games goes equipped with his own bucket of sand, just in case.

Back at the factory, perhaps it is true that after Barry John, Phil Bennett and Jonathan Davies came off the production line the mould was broken. But then the role of the fly-half has changed. With forwards standing off, cluttering up the midfield, how many stand-offs make a break in the manner of the past masters? 'No disrespect to my predecessors,' Jenkins said, 'but their flankers did most of their tackling for them. They had almost no physical contact. Now it's a lot more physical. There's so much emphasis on defence

everybody's got to be a good tackler. Lynagh and Andrew are good examples of fly-halves who tackle.'

So is Jenkins. At 5ft 10in and 13st he is a hard ginger nut. When he left Beddau Comprehensive School at 16 he worked in his father's scrap metal business. 'I used to load all the old iron up and I became a lot stronger.' Any old iron would do and most of it came from the colleries. When they closed so did the scrap metal business and Jenkins's father, with whom he lives, is unemployed. Jenkins was also out of work and when Llanelli offered him a job he was on the point of joining the Scarlets.

A Pontypridd sponsor, Just Rentals, came to the rescue. 'I didn't want to leave,' Jenkins said. 'All I wanted was a job.' He has a PR role and a car, so he can pick his girlfriend up from work. And he gets time off. Julian Baker describes Pontypridd as Jenkins's 'sanctuary'. Dennis John said: 'Sometimes supporters at smaller clubs are more sympathetic. He's under no pressure at the club. People expect our international outside-halves to be like Bennett or John. He's not that. He's Neil Jenkins and he's very good at it.'

(Photograph omitted)

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