Rugby Union: Rejuvenation of Jenkins is a joy

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SUDDENLY, the Five Nations' Championship has become a far more fascinating prospect. It could be a high-powered tournament and, certainly, a number of foregone conclusions are being hastily scrapped, especially in the English and French camps.

The initial reason for the rethink has been the rapid renewal of Welsh confidence following their games against South Africa and Argentina. Even allowing for the Welsh tendency to send their hopes soaring at the slightest sign of a revival, I believe that there's a strong case for optimism.

In seven days they came up against the quickest team in the world and then the strongest: and did exceptionally well against both of them. And, of all the amazing transformations in the Welsh team, none was more significant than that experienced by Neil Jenkins. It is not so much that Jenkins has changed but that the game has changed to suit him.

Three weeks ago, before this glut of international matches had started, I said that the most important priority for each of the home countries was to sort out their outside-half position because you have no chance at the top level of the modern game without a commanding and ultra-confident No 10.

In a flash, Wales have found one while the others are still looking. It is hardly a surprise to see Jenkins operating at No 10 for Wales because he has held that position for a long time. But because he didn't shape up like the traditional Welsh stand-off he has had to fight hard for recognition. Even his admirers, and I've always been among them, have had to admit that he didn't have the pace or the instinct to make best use of the open spaces. They called him the agoraphobic outside-half.

But the way the coach Graham Henry has adapted the Welsh style, Jenkins no longer needs to be something he isn't. He can now fully utilise his strengths as the best passer and kicker in the British Isles. The only change he has had to make is to stand flat, which he is used to doing at Pontypridd.

Under Henry's influence, Wales are playing a quick-tempo game and their cleaning out at the rucks is remarkable. It is a style sure to bring the best out of Robert Howley who revels in all that quick-fire stuff. And it is right up Neil's street as well. You need to be brave, playing right in the faces of the opposition, but he is able to exploit his great skill at distribution, left or right. When an outside-half plays flat and whips the ball away so quickly, it is harder for the opposition to drift in defence and that is one of the reasons why Mark Taylor has been playing so well as centre partner for Scott Gibbs who has been at his best in the past two games. It also helps to have Shane Howarth at full- back. He is very safe under a high ball and a fine kicker and he knows when to run and when not to.

If there is a deficiency in the Welsh backs it is on the wings. Both Gareth Thomas and Dafydd Evans are big and strong, but they lack the speed at the highest level to finish moves from long range. Anthony Sullivan can provide the killing pace to do that job and is likely to threaten one of them.

Up front, Henry has concentrated on the supply of quick ball, especially from the line-outs, and encouraged more mobility. There is a worrying lack of strength in depth but the props David Young and Peter Rogers have yet to feature.

Henry's influence has been immense not through any coaching mystique but just by the introduction of common sense and skilful motivation. He doesn't flog them needlessly in training but focuses on countering the opposition's strengths and sends a team geared up for 80 minutes effort. I really am impressed.

There's still a fearful amount of work to do but Wales can now at least be sure that they'll be giving the French and English something to think about.

Once the Five Nations is over, a tour of Argentina awaits, and then the toughest group in the World Cup. The Welsh may be 10 yards in the air at the moment but you can depend on Henry's feet being firmly on the ground.