Rugby Union: Jenkins the radar-controlled goal machine

The Lions may have a reluctant full-back but they can rely on him to secure vital points. Chris Hewett reports from Durban
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The Independent Online
Champagne rugby, integrated rugby, 15-man rugby: call it what you will, Martin Johnson's ultra-modern Lions have turned the northern hemisphere clock forward by approximately a decade in the space of six remarkable weeks on the Springbok beat. Yet when crisis point arrives in Durban this afternoon, survival will almost certainly depend the hoariest old match-winning chestnut of them all. Goal-kicking.

If that turns out to be the case, the tourists will confidently back themselves to do the necessary. Rather, they will back Neil Jenkins, the carrot-topped, jug-eared, ungainly and thoroughly reluctant full-back from wet and windy Pontypridd who just happens to be kicking more accurately and reliably than any other gun-slinging marksman currently plying his trade on the international stage.

The man is nerveless, utterly unfazed by the uniquely pressurised demands of his craft. According to Dave Alred, the former grid-iron goal-kicker whose success as the Lions' kicking coach can be gauged by a tour strike rate of 80 per cent plus, Jenkins works harder on those aspects of the game pertaining to his right boot than anyone in his experience.

The mechanics of swing are only half the story, however. As Jack Nicklaus or Nick Faldo will confirm, the real business goes on inside the head.

Like virtually every other kicker of world class, Jenkins has his ritualistic idiosyncrasies and eccentricities. He stands hunched over the ball like a praying mantis, apparently lost in a fog of contemplation. Then comes the trademark crouch, the shrug of the shoulders and whoosh, three points thank you very much. The radar is so exquisitely tuned at the moment that the only kicks that fail are those that bounce off the uprights.

"I certainly feel as though I'm kicking well and it comes from the confidence of knowing that you've done the spadework, laid the right foundations," said the 25-year-old Ponty captain as he mused over the slings and arrows of a sporting season in which depression and exhilaration have featured equally prominently.

"Because this is a tour situation, I'm putting more in on the practice field: 30 or 40 kicks a day, six days a week.

"Back home in Ponty I might chip over a dozen or so on the Friday evening before a game but then, I don't have Dave Alred and his clipboard watching my every move."

Alred always predicted that Jenkins would end the tour as one of the greatest of all Lions kickers, but that belief was not shared by the man himself. "Actually, I've exceeded my wildest expectations on this trip. In view of the fact that I broke my arm against England back in March, I would have been more than delighted with a tour place and three or four midweek games.

"I've got to be honest, I'm still worried about my arm. It doesn't hamper my game in any way but it's a bit sore even now and because I wear protective padding, I'm always conscious of it. That's why I wear a long-sleeved jersey, even when it's baking hot. It helps take my mind off the injury.

"So, under the circumstances I would have settled simply for being a Lion. Where I come from, the Lions are the ultimate.

"I was born in 1971 and I wasn't very old before the legends of Barry and Gareth and the rest of the '71 tourists were handed down to me. It's folklore in Wales, isn't it?"

If there is one thing that preys on Jenkins' mind even more than his dodgy arm, it is the fact that he is playing at full-back rather than outside-half. He makes little secret of his positional preference; indeed, he relishes the prospect of throwing away the keys to No 15 and moving back into No 10 as soon as he returns to his beloved Ponty.

One of the more remarkable aspects of Jenkins' six-year career at the top level is that his full-back experience has been confined to the international arena. Unlike Tim Stimpson, the English full-back with whom he has duelled and jousted for a Test place on this tour, he served no apprenticeship, paid no dues, learned no hard lessons on the way up. In short, he is a square peg in a round hole and admits as much.

"Ten is my position, no doubt about it. The two roles are totally different and I must admit to being surprised at getting in front of Tim in the pecking order, because he's a natural full-back and a very, very good one at that.

"I'm not exactly sure how many games I've played at 15 but it's not very many. I may have broken into double figures now, but only just.

"The chopping and changing began back in '93 during the Wales tour of Zimbabwe. Both full-backs were injured so I was asked to help out by switching position. I had no experience of it at all. I'd played one game at full- back for Pontypridd Schools at under-15 level and even then I was shifted into the centre half-way through the match. It was completely new then and to be quite honest, I'm still not used to it.

"All my thinking about the game stems from my instincts as an outside- half. I'm not the slowest player around but I'm far from the quickest and I'm constantly falling back on the angles and lines I use as a stand- off to make a fist of it at full-back. Still, I'm happy to be involved. I'd play anywhere for the Lions."

But will he continue to play anywhere for Wales? Will there not come a point in the near future when he tells the national coaches that he is either outside-half or out altogether? "I'm not sure," he says. "I haven't really thought that far ahead. One thing is for certain, though: with players like Arwel Thomas and Lee Jarvis developing all the time, the fight for the No 10 shirt is going to be very competitive indeed.

"I want to play outside-half for Wales and I make no bones about that. But international rugby is such a wonderful thing to be involved with that you tend to grab every opportunity in whatever position it is offered."

Having already scored the best part of 100 points in four tour starts and two appearances as a replacement, Jenkins could legitimately say something very similar about his kicking.