Rugby Union / Five Nations' Focus: Moon's rise to the fore may take pressure off Jenkins: Steve Bale ponders a welsh gamble rather than a gambol in the Parc

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The Independent Online
WHEN it comes to the green shoots of recovery, Welsh rugby has seen more even than the Government. Alan Davies is an unlikely Norman Lamont but we know - because he, like the Chancellor, has told us - that the elements are now in place for the long-awaited recovery.

To carry on the analogy, Welsh rugby, or more accurately the Wales team, has been in its deepest recession since the war, and so the present generation have gone to springtime Paris to face the French today as familiarly rank outsiders.

To beat England was sublime and to lose to Ireland ridiculous. When will a result such as last month's against the English be seen by everyone in Wales for what it is: merely a step along, rather than the end of, the road? It was only 10-9, after all.

Davies, the respected but now embattled coach, has had the Welsh Rugby Union put into place as sophisticated a back-up system - the conditioning, the sports science, the pastoral care and all the rest of it - as any in world rugby, but this of necessity will produce long-term benefits. And the Welsh, in their fanaticism for the game, are notorious for their short-termism.

They are not alone; you could say it about the French as well. The underlying trend may be upward, though even that seemed debatable while Wales were losing abjectly to Ireland, but right here and now things suddenly, and no doubt misleadingly, seem almost as parlous as they were when even greater indignities were being inflicted before Davies was ever considered a Welsh coach.

The clearest problem is that Wales are a team without style - meaning without panache or flair on the one hand, and without a coherent system of play on the other. The only one of the three championship matches in which a pattern was decided and followed was against England, when it consisted of Neil Jenkins gravitating towards the right-hand touchline and sticking the ball in the air in Jon Webb's direction.

It worked a treat, but as a strategy for consistently winning internationals it did not have a hope - as the subsequent match against Scotland showed. It also brings us to the heart of the argument, the heart of the team if you like: as long as Wales ignore the concept of outside-half-as-playmaker they are going to struggle.

Someone put it nicely on Welsh television the other day: in football parlance, Wales need someone who can put his foot on the ball, and this is a judgement which would be equally valid even if the Welsh forwards were cleaning out all opposition (which, of course, they are not).

Dare one suggest Adrian Davies, who after all is a Cambridge football as well as rugby Blue, could be the man?

Or perhaps - just perhaps - the selection of Rupert Moon to face France tomorrow as a Terry Holmes- type scrum-half at the heels of a struggling pack will mean a change of decision-maker and so take the pressure off Jenkins.

The criteria that Alan Davies wishes his outside-half to fill were delineated in a revealing conversation before the championship commenced and, even if this is an application of the exact science of hindsight, the coach's view then is no less cogent now.

'First of all the player has to be able to understand the strategy and implement certain tactics. That's a minimum requirement,' Davies said. 'Coming down to the things that supplement the basic, your outside-half has to be able to pass the ball well, kick the ball well in order to position the team in areas they can score from, and be able to respond to defences by disorganising them. That might mean he runs at them or organises it for someone else to run at them.'

This sounds for all the world like a former Welsh Schools captain by the name of Stuart Barnes, but unfortunately he plays for England and has the luxury of a decent forward platform (though not as decent as England have had in recent times). With the best will in the world, it does not sound like Neil Jenkins behind this season's Welsh packs.

'Unfortunately that ability is not something that comes instantly and it doesn't matter who tries to tell me otherwise,' Davies went on. 'All the best outside-halves haven't been instant successes at international level, certainly not in the modern day and age with much more efficient systems of defence.

'If we had a mature world-class outside-half we would then be able to build the rest of the team around him. As we haven't got that, we have to build a team in which someone will become a world-class outside-half - and that's more difficult.'

All this was said in the pre-championship days when the outside-half debate was raging. That it is still raging shows how far from Davies's planned route Wales have strayed.

He neglected to mention that your outside-half often has to be your place-kicker as well, which has been the unofficial reason for Jenkins's retention.

The situation now in relation to how Davies was talking two months ago is shot through with irony. Then, he was highly delighted that three of the four vertebrae in the spine of his team satisfied the vast majority of honorary Welsh selectors (ie, the public).

'I don't think many people would argue about the hooker and No 8,' Davies said. 'There is a great deal less debate about the scrum-half, but there is an enormous amount of debate about who the outside-half should be, because it's not conclusive what the answer is.'

How poignant. The hooker referred to was Garin Jenkins, who never made the Five Nations because he was sent off and suspended. The No 8 was Stuart Davies and the scrum-half Robert Jones; both are now dropped. Only the outside-half, the position that generated all that earnest debate, has remained constant.

Small wonder the wisdom of Welsh selection has been questioned since the team for Parc des Princes were announced last Friday.

Three changes would have been fully warranted after the Scotland defeat at Murrayfield and, with maybe another three now, would surely have made more sense than half a dozen in one fell swoop for this most intimidating of international venues.

'The Paris match gives us an end- of-season opportunity to view other squad options in an admittedly difficult contest,' Robert Norster, the Wales manager, said.

'This game offers a truly testing environment in which to forge an international reputation.' All of which makes it sound almost as if it was planned all along. Somehow I do not think so.

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