Rugby Union: Jenkins departs but Stradey show goes on: Life is never boring at Llanelli, where adventure is club policy. Steve Bale reports

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The Independent Online
AS GOODBYES go, Gareth Jenkins's as Llanelli coach has been long - he told Llanelli before last season that he wished to finish at the end of this season. But it has never, ever been boring, not least because at Stradey Park enterprise is an article of faith, written down as official club policy.

This is a relatively recent document, though reflective of a philosophy as old as the club's 121 years. The hallowed principles of attack and counter-attack are inculcated in new players, constantly reiterated to older players and, lest anyone be in any doubt, printed in the match programme at the start of each season.

In consequence of a mix of tradition, superb talent, perceptive coaching and comprehensive conditioning, this is the side playing the most dazzling rugby to be found anywhere in these islands, and doing so week-in week-out amid the grind of the Heineken League, where 19 matches have brought 109 tries and 730 points.

These are staggering statistics but the Scarlets' occasional fallibility - inherent, perhaps, in their high-risk rugby - is such that, even though scoring at an average of 38.4 points and 5.7 tries, even having racked up seven half-centuries, they may lose out to Swansea in the championship.

But the cup, now that is a different matter: Llanelli play Pontypridd at Stradey in the quarter-final on Saturday, and such is their current form and cup history that they will probably sweep over an awkward obstacle and all the way to the renamed Swalec trophy. This is beneficial therapy for Jenkins compared with his alternative rugby job as assistant coach to the Welsh team. Now if only he could get Wales to play like Llanelli . . .

Of course it does not work like that but, as long as there are eight Scarlets playing for Wales, Welshmen can live in hope. 'You have an opportunity in club football, when you have 40 or so games on the fixture list, to develop players; what you have at international level is four chances, which is restricting and frustrating for any coach,' Jenkins said.

'You have to invest time into it. After 12 or 14 games in international rugby people should be developing, but that's asking for a lot of time which is not necessarily available to the player or the coach. At club level it is totally different: at Llanelli we have a positive philosophy of how we want to play our rugby and, having set that out, we can target the type of player we believe is suitable and take the time we need to develop them.'

And breathe into them the Stradey way. John Maclean, coach from 1978- 82 and now chairman, drew up the document which has served the subsequent generation. He even tried to do something similar for the Welsh Rugby Union, whose committee he later joined, but nothing came of it.

'The philosophy of Llanelli RFC will be to try and provide entertainment and excitement for its supporters by playing effective and adventurous winning rugby in a style which will be enjoyable for both player and spectator,' the policy states. 'Hopefully it will be rugby football of quality which incorporates the belief that such an approach involves the taking of justifiable risks, especially in running the ball from our own line and behind.' There are a couple more, equally unexceptionable sentences - but if this seems a statement of the obvious, it is far, far more. It is a perfect articulation of 'Thou shalt . . .' as opposed to 'Thou shalt not . . .'

It is easier said than done, but Llanelli really are doing it: 58 points with a weakened team against Maesteg last Saturday, 53 against Newbridge and 72 against Newport immediately before that. 'What is happening now is the fulfilment of everything we wanted when I set this down,' Maclean said.

It would not suit everyone, however, and Jenkins draws a sharp comparison between Llanelli, with their endless Scarlet running, and the other end of the philosophical spectrum. 'If, say, Pontypool and Llanelli were looking at an under-19 international, we might well be interested in completely different players. We have a well-balanced team for the rugby we want to play, but if some of these players went to Pontypool they probably wouldn't want them there.'

Coming from Jenkins, this is an unusually dubious proposition. His squad are composed mainly of youngsters with years of development left in them. The alarming prospect for the rest of Welsh rugby - though sheer delight for all who love the handling code - is that these boys will get even better. Which is a worthy testimonial to the departing Jenkins, 41, who was a distinguished Llanelli flanker when the nonpareil Carwyn James was coach two decades ago and has been one of James's successors for 11 years. 'No club is about an 'I'; I've never been in it for my own self-esteem,' he said.

'But I've sincerely loved the club and the town. Llanelli lost its heart a decade ago when the steel industry collapsed, and the lifeline that was left was rugby. It is a great privilege to imagine we are doing something to brighten the lives of so many people.'

As well as a great achievement.

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