Rugby Union: Llewellyn a lasting symbol of the Dragon's defiance
Twelve years after England last lost in Cardiff, the most capped Welshman in history predicts a home rebirth.
Tuesday 01 February 2005
The answer is 1993, a mythical time when union was still, bizarrely, referred to as an "amateur" sport and the Welsh capital, even more bizarrely, was still referred to as a rugby "fortress", having repelled the English all but once in the previous 30 years. That seems incredible now, although a faded, dog-eared copy of a Welsh newspaper from the time confirms it is so, with its front-page picture of a cherub-cheeked lock being carried off by a delirious redscarfed throng. Whatever happened to that young man, you may wonder, with his smile beamed straight from heaven, his head full of Grand Slam dreams and his heart packed to bursting point with hwyl? What is he now: an accountant, bank manager, after-dinner speaker, pundit, journalist?
Er, no, he's a professional rugby player and when Mike Ruddock tonight names his team to face England - in Wales' equivalent of a Presidential address to the nation with an announcement from the coach live on BBC Wales - the name Gareth Llewellyn will almost certainly appear in the second row, all 6ft 6in and 35 years (and 11 months) of him. Yes, he was that local boy in a photograph and his memory of that day, 12 long years ago, is as fresh as a daffodil in the mind of by far and away rugby's longest-serving international.
Same as any Welshman recalling that Five Nations afternoon, Llewellyn starts with the one moment that seemed to typify that era of Dragonhood defiance. "Well, I remember Ieuan's try obviously," he says of the touchdown by Ieuan Evans that came after the Lions wing had chased what looked a lost cause in a kick ahead from the flanker Emyr Lewis, before Rory Underwood fatally dillied and dallied to allow the Welsh captain to make up a full 10 yards on him and hack the ball on for what was to prove the decisive score. "How couldn't I? But what I remember just as well was being under the cosh for the whole second half. You know, it was a "defend-athon" for 40 minutes as we protected that 10-9 lead. We somehow managed to keep them out, but it was so desperate at the end that I can see Brian Moore trying to get the ball on the touchline to take a quick throw-in and our hooker Nigel Meek kind of harassing and stopping him. And then the referee grabbing the ball and blowing up and the whole of Cardiff going mad.
"At that time, they never used to stop the crowd from coming on the pitch, so we had a mass pitch invasion and, for some reason, I was the one who was carried off. Yeah, it all went a bit crazy," his voice tailing off into the nostalgia of it all. "What a brilliant memory."
"A brilliant memory," and a very exclusive one too, the former steel- worker having appeared against England 13 times and won just the once. "But what a once," he says. Nevertheless, there is a palpable hint of regret as he surveys an international career that began as a 20-year- old in 1989 against Buck Shelford's unstoppable All Blacks. "Think about it. I've never started a game against England as the favourites, and that one win from a dozen or whatever games it is, is not much of a return is it?" he said.
It might have been enough for many to give up - indeed, it was enough for many to give up, including Gareth's brother and fellow international lock, Glyn. But Llewellyn Jnr stuck at it, moving around wherever the advent of professionalism took him, from Neath to Harlequins, back to Neath-Swansea and now to Narbonne, south-west France, when the Welsh region released him at the end of last season.
During this period, the most capped Welshman in history has entered and exited the international scene many times. It is little short of a modern sporting miracle then, that not only will he be winning his 93rd cap on Saturday but that he also recently recorded his personal best in a fitness test. "Yeah, it's nice to know that at 35 you're still improving," he says with a smirk. But how does he keep on doing it? Blood transfusions, religion, yoga, drugs?
"I love playing international rugby, playing rugby full stop," he says. "And then there's the friendship of the players; just being with the boys has been the best part of it. The game's always stayed fresh, too. But if you'd asked at the start of my career, obviously I would never have dreamt I would still be playing a decade and a half later, but then as sport is becoming more and more professional, you see more and more people achieving things like gold medals in their mid-30s. They're looking after themselves better, they've got better sports science back-up and yes, perhaps there is a lot more to gain. So they're pushing themselves that far further."
Too far, claim that ever-present legion of Welsh critics who believe Ruddock should look to his youth, despite the fact that he will name at least six players aged 25 or under in his starting XV this evening. "Look, it's the same for me as with the youngsters in the team. It's whether you're up to it that counts," he says. "If you're good enough, you're old enough and if you're good enough, you're young enough. It's that simple."
Although stressing England remain favourites, Llewellyn is adamant this Welsh team is good enough. "In all my years, this is the best group of players I've played with by the far. The most talented, the most organised, the most of a `unit'. The last two times we've played England we've outscored them in tries. Everyone tells us that if we Welsh forwards can get enough ball for our backs - well, let's just wait and find out on Saturday, shall we?"
After waiting 12 years, another few days won't make a deal of difference to Wales' jolly evergreen giant.
WALES V ENGLAND THE FALL OF `FORTRESS' CARDIFF
WALES 10 ENGLAND 9
7 February 1993
Wales: Try I Evans; Conversion N Jenkins; Penalty N Jenkins. England: Penalties J Webb 2; Drop goal J Guscott.
WALES 9 ENGLAND 23
18 February 1995
Wales: Penalties N Jenkins 3.
England: Tries R Underwood 2, V Ubogu; Conversion R Andrew; Penalties Andrew 2.
WALES 13 ENGLAND 34
15 March 1997
Wales: Try R Howley; Conversion J Davies; Penalties J Davies 2. England: Tries T Stimpson, T Underwood, R Hill, P de Glanville; Conversions M Catt 4; Penalties Catt 2.
WALES 15 ENGLAND 44
3 February 2001
Wales: Tries R Howley, S Quinnell; Conversion N Jenkins; Penalty N Jenkins. England: Tries W Greenwood 3, M Dawson 2, B Cohen; Conversions J Wilkinson 4; Penalties Wilkinson 2.
WALES 9 ENGLAND 26
22 February 2003
Wales: Penalties C Sweeney 3.
England: Tries W Greenwood, J Worsley; Conversions J Wilkinson 2; Penalties Wilkinson 2; Drop goal Wilkinson 2.
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