Rugby Union: Fumble in the fly-half factory

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The Independent Online
REFLECTING ON how many times his nation has been down this road before, a small, hirsute man joked wickedly about another false dawn for Welsh rugby. "Well, it's back to the draining board," he said in the crowded bar of a hotel close by Wembley Stadium.

A renewal of typical insularity, too, in the predictable groundswell of public opinion that questions the wisdom of appointing the New Zealand coach Graham Henry to revive Welsh rugby. "What does he know about us, our culture, the problems that have grown up in our rugby?" someone said after a defeat that leaves Wales with the bleak prospect of hosting a World Cup as pointless wooden-spoonists in the Five Nations' Championship.

From here to where? Two defeats, France and England to come. No wonder the mood of Welsh supporters after the 29-23 defeat by Ireland was again one of resignation. The confidence gained from running South Africa close has dissipated in the careless loss to Scotland at Murrayfield and the consequences of unbridled passion at Wembley.

Expressing disappointment with the unruly behaviour that gave Ireland 18 penalties, Henry was hang-dog. "Nothing can be achieved overnight," he said. "Improvement was always going to take time and it is up to us in the remaining matches to show that Welsh rugby can move forward."

As Henry stated, there is a critical need to provide Welsh players with more intense activity on a regular basis, something that would come from the formation of a British club championship, but more immediately he is stuck with a problem that arises from the lack of pace that has prevented Neil Jenkins from becoming an outside half in the glorious Welsh tradition.

A terrific footballer in every other way, super hands, near faultless kicking, alert and intelligent, Jenkins unfortunately carries a flaw that causes the Welsh backs to be too flat in alignment. Although reluctant to be openly critical of a man who has given much to Welsh rugby, former international players I spoke with felt Jenkins simply does not have the legs to create the impetus.

So Ireland in the first half were always in Welsh faces, hustling errors of the sort that saw David Humphreys charge down a Jenkins' kick and release Kevin Maggs for an untroubled run to the posts.

Humphreys, a miserable figure following Ireland's one- point defeat by France at Lansdowne Road, hardly qualifies as one of the game's leading outside-halves, but he finished with 19 points, including two dropped goals, that put paid to the revival that brought Wales back from 26-6 to within three points of levelling the scores.

If there was some substance to Henry's assertion that Wales played below their potential for all but that stirring spell in the second half, the truth of it was that Wales were only kept in the match by individual contributions, especially from the Quinnell brothers, who were at times fearsomely effective.

In most other respects Ireland were superior, dominant in the line outs and nothing like as prone as Wales to handling errors. England will not enjoy meeting them in Dublin.

For many years now, Wales has been stumbling from one promised revival to another, putting their faith in a succession of coaches while suffering defeats of a magnitude to suggest past glories will never be emulated.

This has coincided with a dearth of talent in the position for which Welsh rugby is most famous. Not since Jonathan Davies has there been anyone at outside half who could be spoken of in the same breath as Barry John, Phil Bennett or Cliff Morgan.

That is not to saddle Jenkins with the sole responsibility. Only to wish God had provided him with better legs.

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