Rugby Union: Jenkins spot on for haul of fame

Robert Cole finds Wales' kicker keen to spread his wings
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The Independent Online
Neil Jenkins was never considered to be the wonder boy of Welsh rugby - that title was always reserved for his Wales Youth team-mate, Scott Gibbs - yet in the space of four years he has turned into something of a phenomenon.

If Wales are to succeed in defending their Five Nations Trophy this season then it will be down to the Pontypridd player to lead the way - right boot first.

That is why the French have tagged him the "enfant terrible" in the build up to tomorrow's Five Nations opener in Paris, and why the whole of Wales will be hoping he can maintain his prodigious form.

Since coming into the Welsh side as a teenager in 1991 he has developed into the deadliest goalkicker in the world game. The records have tumbled at every level as he has hoisted his points-per-match average in test rugby to 11.5.

Only Grant Fox (14) and Michael Lynagh (12) can boast better international records, but Jenkins is certainly hot on their heels. In 12 of Wales' 13

matches last year, he scored 181 out of 351 points.

That took him past Paul Thorburn's all-time Welsh points mark of 304 and in 29 matches for Wales to date he has scored 320 points. Not bad going, considering he was not the front line kicker in his first four appearances.

Jenkins treats goal-kicking in much the same way as Fox used to for New Zealand. It is a precision art which needs meticulous practice and attention to detail.

The more precise he can become, the more chance Wales have of winning. Just consider the facts and figures. In their last five matches, three of which were won, Wales have relied on the Jenkins boot to provide them with 74 of their 84 points.

Welsh fans thought it was a national catastrophe when Ieuan Evans and Mike Rayer broke their legs earlier in the season. The truth is that if Jenkins were to break down it would be something akin to the end of the world for Welsh rugby.

Not that his game is all about kicking. At Pontypridd, where he has helped to elevate his home town club to the top of the Heineken League, he is the leading try scorer in four seasons of First Division action.

Now it is time for him to expand his game at international level and by recalling Robert Jones at scrum-half the Welsh selectors are hoping that, with a quicker service, the man wearing No 10 will be able to run the show in the manner of the classic Welsh outside-halves.

Part of the early criticism of Jenkins was that he was ungainly and that he could not make a break a la Cliff Morgan, Barry John or Phil Bennett. The game has changed since their day, though, and Jenkins' more functional style suits modern purposes.

"I have had a fair bit of stick in the past for not being a running outside-half in the more traditional Welsh mould, but I don't think anyone can accuse me of being merely a kicking No 10," Jenkins said.

"At Pontypridd, we run the ball as much as possible and we score a lot of tries. That free-flowing style is what everyone is striving for at international level, as well.

"But, with so much at stake in international matches these days, it isn't easy to throw caution to the wind. You have to have a structure and a pattern to your game and the sides that do best of all are those who stick to their game plans.

"You should never be completely rigid in what you do, but rugby is a wearing-down process and the flourish comes once you are on top."

While his goal-kicking has progressed, so too has his passing game. There is no better distributor of the ball in the Welsh game and his ability to put players into space will be another key factor in the Welsh plans.

So what is it that the man who has yet to miss a Five Nations match since making his debut against England in January, 1991 is hoping for from this year's championship? "Obviously I want Wales to do well, and hold on to the trophy, but I also want to seeus scoring more tries. I've kicked a lot of penalties in my Welsh career and it would be nice to have more tries to convert," Jenkins said.

"We have got a good front-five platform now and there is confidence within the team following last year's performances. There is belief as well as pride, and no little talent.

"What we must do is use that talent and express ourselves more. With the World Cup coming up on hard grounds, it is going to be those sides capable of running the ball who are going to come out on top."

There will be no change in the 90-seconds routine which Jenkins has perfected for his goalkicking, but it sounds as though there could be some significant tinkerings with the back-line approach from Wales throughout the championship.