Rugby Union: Fly-half and a half

No more national lampoon. Paris has transformed the life of Neil Jenkins.
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GRAHAM HENRY was getting exasperated with the line of questioning. "Neil Jenkins," the Wales coach emphasised, "is a world-class player and a top man to be involved with. The Welsh have got a problem with their fly-halves, haven't they?"

Normally the New Zealander would not refer to Wales in the third person. But when it comes to emotional baggage Henry, at this stage, is travelling light. "Jenkins was the No 1 player against France. How many times does he have to play like that to convince you people?"

It is a fair question. In some respects Jenkins is the William Hague of international rugby. There seems to be an image problem. "In his professionalism Jenkins reminds me of Grant Fox," Henry added, referring to the former All Black. In the all-time points scoring table, Jenkins, who will win his 64th cap when Wales meet England at Wembley next Sunday, has passed 700 and has overtaken Gavin Hastings and Fox to move into second place behind Michael Lynagh. He's averaging more than 11 points a game; he also kicked the Lions to victory over South Africa two years ago.

So what's the problem? When Jenkins rolled off the fly-half production line, he didn't quite fit the mould. His predecessors were sleek, eye- catching, two-door classics with overdrive and sporty trim; Jenkins was a four- door family model with furry dice but no leather upholstery and no acceleration. Barry John he wasn't.

Following the Five Nations defeats to Scotland and Ireland, he was again berated. Then came the stunning victory over France in Paris, a 33-34 extravaganza orchestrated, in the main, by Jenkins. "I've been here before," the Pontypridd captain said. "I get a bit fed up but I haven't got a problem with criticism. I'm thick-skinned. They've been trying to get rid of me for years, saying I am not the natural fly-half. They'll only be happy when I am retired, but then they'll rip into some other bloke. You can't win. Last year I was lying too deep, and this year I'm lying too flat. The Welsh people expect glory all the time but this isn't the Seventies. We haven't got 15 world-class players and we are inconsistent. This is something we've got to sort out, but we're not that good yet."

Twelve months ago Wales, under Kevin Bowring, beat Scotland and Ireland but were slaughtered by England at Twickenham and France at Wembley. Playing at full-back, Jenkins had a wretched time. "We were run ragged. Christ, we were blitzed... shell-shocked. I should never have agreed to play full- back. It's one of the worst things I've ever done. If I wasn't good enough to play No 10 I wasn't good enough to be in the team. I didn't enjoy the season with club or country."

When Bath made a move for him Jenkins was ready to do the unthinkable and leave the Rhondda Valley club but the Welsh Rugby Union blocked the move. "I was looking forward to playing in the English Premiership but it was made clear that if I joined Bath I might not have been picked for Wales again. My international career could have ended."

Had Jenkins moved he would have displaced Mike Catt as the Bath stand- off. The two, of course, go head to head at Wembley. "I wouldn't have a clue what Neil was like last year," Henry, who will not watch the video of Wales's Twickenham massacre, said. "I didn't coach him then." Jenkins will also go toe to toe with the teenager Jonny Wilkinson, whose introduction to the England centre has been one of the highlights of the season.

"I haven't really seen him," Henry said. "Ask me in a week or two." Jenkins, who has never played against Wilkinson, was less reticent. "England have found a real gem," he said, "and he will become even greater as he matures. I was 19 when I first played for Wales and I didn't have the pressure of being the goal kicker. Wilkinson's kicking has been quite incredible. We will have to be very disciplined."

Last week Jenkins - "if the young players want a role model they couldn't do any better," Henry said - swore at the referee during Pontypridd's defeat by Llanelli in the quarter-finals of the Welsh Cup and made his first visit to the sin bin. "I lost the plot. What I said to the ref was not very nice. I can't repeat it."

This will be Jenkins' seventh meeting with the English and he has been on the winning side only once, in 1993. Aside from the duel in marksmanship between Jenkins and Wilkinson the match promises a clash of styles: ostensibly the power of the English forwards against the adventure of the Welsh backs.

Against the Springboks at Wembley and again at the Stade de France, the number of times Jenkins kicked the ball from hand could be represented by a V sign. "I don't know how England are going to play it but we'd be pretty stupid to take them on up front. They have a much bigger pack and their back five are massive. We didn't play enough rugby against Scotland and Ireland, and against France we were determined to be bold from the word go. Maybe France thought they just had to turn up to beat us. We have learned so many moves you need a degree to play in the threequarters. I really like the way we are trying to play. It makes it so much easier when people are enjoying it."

If Henry is an admirer of Jenkins, the feeling is mutual. "He's very thorough and he's a straight talker," Jenkins said, "But he doesn't say you can't do this or you must do that. He knows when to switch off and have a few beers with you." After the defeat at Murrayfield, Jenkins and some of the other senior players were invited to Henry's home, aptly called The Coach House, for a chat.

Henry's style on and off the pitch has been refreshing. "We have to keep the ball in our hands," Henry said. "And it requires a major change in attitude and it takes a while. I don't think there's any other way to play the game."

There's always the English way: a combine harvester for a pack, few tries and plenty of penalties. "If you want me to criticise the English you're wasting your time," Henry said. "They're the best team this side of the world by a considerable margin. Perhaps they've got the best pack in the world and their defence is second to none. This is going to be much harder than France. England drew with the All Blacks, should have beaten Australia and beat South Africa. What do you have to do to be the best? I'd love to be in their situation. England are a very intelligent rugby team. They put a lot of pressure on and they kick penalties. They play the game correctly."

It is as well that his fly-half has a thick skin because self- deprecation seems to run in the family. If you see a man at Wembley, with a bright orange wig and large plastic ears carrying an inflatable sheep, it will be Jenkins' brother-in-law.