Rugby Union: Launch of the pocket rocket

Wembley finale: Two back-room back-row men relish the challenge on a day of close encounters:; Tim Glover says Wales have unearthed a gem in Brett Sinkinson
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The Independent Online
SUDDENLY, size doesn't matter. For years Neil Back, a dynamic little package, was considered too short for the England back row. First and foremost they had to be as high as an elephant's eye, and preferably as broad in the beam as Dumbo. Three No 8s would do nicely.

Unfortunately such behemoths tended to possess jumbo-like pace. The change in laws has produced a radical change in outlook: more a back row of hyenas. Not only is Back back in fashion but England's breakaway trio does not contain a club specialist No 8.

Wales have also gone back to the future with their own pocket-sized open side in Brett Sinkinson, a New Zealander who plays for Neath, a club otherwise known as the Welsh All Blacks. "Back's a real dynamic player who likes the rough stuff," Sinkinson said. "We should have a bit of fun."

The contest between Sinkinson, aged 28 and 5ft 11in, and Back, aged 30 and 5ft 10in, could be one of the more fascinating side shows in the Wales- England climax to the Five Nations at Wembley today.

Sinkinson is not the first Kiwi to play in the Wales back row (Hemi Taylor of Cardiff and Dale McIntosh of Pontypridd preceded him) but he is the most unlikely. When Lyn Jones, the Neath coach, went on a working holiday to the Southern Hemisphere last year he was looking for a tight-head prop and an outside-half. The stand-off he had in mind was Pat Howard. "We were told it would be difficult because he didn't have a British passport," Jones said. "The next thing we knew was that he had joined Leicester."

Then Jones saw Sinkinson - he worked on the family kiwi fruit farm in Whakatane when he wasn't playing rugby - in a club game. "My first reaction was that he would never make it," Jones said. "He was putting in far too many tackles. The modern No 7 has got to be seen to be in the game with the ball in his hands, not grounding everything that moves.

"We had a chat and he was keen to come over. The trouble is he had heard stories about [Francois] Pienaar and Zinzan [Brooke] earning pounds 200,000 and I had to point out to him that Wales was not London. International rugby was never mentioned, but as soon as he played for us you could see he was the business. He's very strong and has great vision. He made an impression straight away, particularly with the public. In Neath he's king."

It is not difficult to see why Sinkinson would have impressed Jones. He's a man after his own heart. Jones was an open-side flanker for Neath and Llanelli who won a handful of caps in 1993. At 5ft 11in he was considered too small.

What has made Sinkinson's elevation all the more striking is that in New Zealand, where back-row forwards are more plentiful than kiwi fruit, he would not be regarded as ripe for selection. When he arrived at the Gnoll nobody had ever heard of him, but then he was hardly a household name in the Bay of Plenty, where he had played most of his rugby.

However, Graham Henry, Wales's New Zealand coach, remembered him from a Ranfurly Shield match a few years ago when Henry's Auckland were fortunate to survive against Bay of Plenty, for whom Sinkinson was outstanding. "He was the man of the match, but he never really came close to playing for the All Blacks," Henry said. "He was regarded as being a bit small. There's a hell of a lot of depth in New Zealand rugby, more than in any other country in the world, especially in loose forwards. The Polynesian and Maori factor seems to produce the right physical make-up."

Henry acknowledges that the return of Back and the rise of Sinkinson has something to do with the law changes. "They've come into their own around the tackle area, and with lifting in the line-out guaranteeing possession, nobody has to worry any more about throwing to a relatively short guy at the tail."

Sinkinson made his debut in the epic 34-33 victory over France in Paris last month, Henry preferring him to the Pontypridd flanker Martyn Williams. "Martin's talented but is a baby compared to Brett," Henry said. "He'll develop into the player that Brett is. Brett's been around and knows what it's all about. He's very uncomplicated and gets on with the job. He's also got a hard edge."

Sinkinson, who has had Super 12 experience with Waikato Chiefs, broke a bone in his hand against Munster earlier in the season and then fractured a cheekbone in training for Wales B. "He came back on against Munster," Lyn Jones said. "You can't keep him off the park. He's an honest guy with an honest workload. You get your mileage out of the Kiwis."

Sinkinson, who shares a house with two other New Zealand/ Welsh All Blacks, the blind-side flanker Dale Jones and the full-back Sandy Stephens, qualifies for Wales on the grounds that his grandfather came from Carmarthen, although he is a little hazy on the details.

"Neath took a gamble in signing me," Sinkinson said, "and I never dreamt it would lead to this. When I was selected against France I had to switch on pretty quickly. The first half was a blur. I was just glad I gave my two cents worth." He gave much more than that. Apart from the fact that his speed was a key element in Wales's all-inclusive handling game, he also put in some impressive tackles, including a try-saving effort on Franck Tournaire, knocking the prop into touch a yard short of the Welsh line. "Against England," Sinkinson said, "we'll have to raise our performance by about 40 per cent."

In Cardiff last Wednesday Sinkinson was randomly drug tested. They should bottle the contents and market it as a Kiwi wonder tonic.

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