Rugby Union: Five Nations: Wales found redemption at church of Wembley

Click to follow
The Independent Online
EVEN BEFORE the climax to Sunday's game, I thought I could understand why my fellow-countrymen - and, increasingly, countrywomen - took to Wembley as they did.

To the working classes the stadium was always the greatest sporting temple in the islands, prominently featured (along with the Albert Hall and Broadcasting House) in all the children's encyclopaedias.

Congregations would attend to watch the Cup finals in both football and rugby league. There they saw England beat West Germany in the World Cup. They would fill the church to its then-capacity of 100,000 for the match between England and Scotland: once one of the great occasions in the sporting calendar, now part of the faded scrapbook, as forgotten as Russian books or the New Look.

Twickenham, by contrast, was a cold place; home of promises broken, hopes unfulfilled. In its modern, grey, concrete clothing it is even more menacing, partly because the English have lost some of their inhibitions (though off the field rather than on it) and at last learnt to sing, loudly if not always tunefully.

Sunday's game did seem like a genuine home match for Wales, taking place in Cardiff rather than in north London. "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot" used to be sung mainly in the dressing-rooms of such teams as Harlequins and Richmond. It was then adopted by the Twickenham crowd. On Sunday it was sung only once, not very convincingly at that.

This was odd, because England were the better side. At half-time they were leading not only on points but by three tries to nil.

I do not want to take anything away from Wales' fighting spirit in the second half or from Scott Gibbs' great try, which will go down in rugby history and Welsh mythology. In 50 years' time, if the game is still being played in Wales, he will have beaten not six Englishmen, but an entire XV.

The hero of the early evening, however, was Neil Jenkins. Here I claim some consistency. In Wales' darkest days, when they were being beaten by such countries such as Western Samoa - and when I remarked that it was lucky they had not been playing the whole of Samoa - it was Jenkins' boot which gave the scoreline a semblance of respectability.

He was also a perfectly competent outside-half. Any other country, even New Zealand after Grant Fox or South Africa after Joel Stransky, would have welcomed him into their side. Only in Wales did he find no honour. He was blamed for not being Barry John or Phil Bennett, Cliff Morgan or David Watkins. I wrote this at the time not only to encourage the boy but also because I believed it to be true.

In 1997 Jenkins, with a little help from Gibbs, Jeremy Guscott, Matt Dawson and others, won a Lions series in South Africa. But he did not enjoy himself because he was playing full-back, with Gregor Townsend the first choice at outside-half and, after Townsend was injured, Mike Catt.

On his return to Wales he informed the authorities - this was before the accession of Graham Henry - that if he was not to be picked at outside- half, he did not want to be picked at all. Wisely, Henry acceded to Jenkins' demand, not simply for the sake of peace and concord, but because he considered him to be good at his job.

Henry's other achievements include solving the loose-head problem with Peter Rogers and accommodating the Quinnell brothers who, as they say in Wales, have no harm in them - except sometimes on the field. He should still be looking for at least one wing.

Rogers I consider to be a legitimate Welsh selection. His father came from near Llanelli and, like Craig Quinnell, he was educated at Llandovery. Tony Horton, like him, learnt his propping in South Africa: that did not make him any the less an Englishman. But other players such as Shane Howarth and Brett Sinkinson for Wales, Glenn Metcalfe and the Leslie brothers for Scotland - true New Zealanders all - present two difficulties.

The first concerns the World Cup. They may well find themselves playing for Scotland or Wales against what is in reality their native land. All the indications are that they will want to play, their respective British Isles countries will pick them and New Zealand or South Africa (whence some players hail also) will raise no objections.

The second difficulty concerns the next Lions tour, if it ever takes place. It was raised by Gerald Davies in another newspaper a couple of weeks ago. His view, and that of several other former Lions he had spoken to, was that a more stringent qualification process for players is needed than the one applied to the Five (or soon to be Six) Nations' Championship and the World Cup.

Can a player be an honorary Welshman, Scotsman or Irishman for one rugby purpose, but not for another? At any rate there is a perfectly good Lions replacement for John Leslie in Scott Gibbs, who now joins the pantheon.

Comments