RUGBY UNION: Reward for Gibbs as Wales look back

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The Independent Online


It is useful for Welsh rugby to be reminded that triumph can come from adversity, and Andrew Gibbs yesterday became a role model when he was chosen for the wooden spoon match against Ireland in Cardiff a week tomorrow.

Gibbs, a 22-year-old police constable, has managed to overcome the debilitating effects of reactive arthritis - which put him out of rugby for nearly 18 months - to reach his sudden eminence, ousting Hemi Taylor as the blind- side flanker among three changes from the side outplayed by Scotland last Saturday.

At the same time, Derwyn Jones, at 6ft 10in Wales's biggest hope for the future a few days ago, loses his place after four caps, as the selectors make the backward step to Phil Davies to give their forward play more coherence. Having recovered from concussion, Anthony Clement replaces his own full-back replacement, Matthew Back.

Gibbs is only the ninth Newbridge player to be capped for Wales. His career has been so severely disrupted that for a while, when he was 20, it was almost brought to an end altogether. The condition had been diagnosed in 1991 but became serious in 1992, when Gibbs broke an ankle by diving into a swimming pool while on tour in Cyprus with Newbridge.

The illness had reduced his weight to 131/2 stone but when he was then put on a course of steroids it ballooned to more than 17, and it is only the past month or two that he has returned to his optimum playing weight of around 16. "I was told that if everything went well I would be able to play rugby again, but if it had gone badly I could have ended up on crutches or taking drugs for the rest of my life. It was a very depressing time," he said yesterday.

Alan Davies, the Wales coach, said: "The fat took over for a while but he has got himself fit and in physical shape, and will add force to the side in defence and attack." Which is not especially flattering to the discarded Taylor, who was recalled against England when unfit and was also off the pace against the Scots.

As for Jones, he has been penalised for the collective inertia of the Welsh pack at Murrayfield and the specific absence of both first-choice props, Ricky Evans and John Davies. This does not say much for those who have replaced them. "Derwyn was selected in order to win us set-piece possession as part of a pack that had aggressive ball-carriers in the front row," Alan Davies said.

The onus therefore falls on the coach's veteran namesake, who is 6in shorter than Jones. By this selection Wales have shown themselves to be now looking no further than the Ireland game and the idea of building towards the World Cup can wait. "It's obviously disappointing to approach this last game not having registered on the championship scoreboard but I don't think that reflects the potential of this side in any shape or form," Robert Norster, the manager, said.

However, Norster subsequently made this revealing comment in a radio interview: "I don't think we are blessed with that many alternatives. We are weak in some positions and we are eggshell-thin in some positions."

WALES (v Ireland, Cardiff, 18 March): A Clement (Swansea); I Evans (Llanelli, capt), M Hall (Cardiff), W Proctor (Llanelli); N Jenkins (Pontypridd), R Jones (Swansea); M Griffiths (Cardiff), G Jenkins (Swansea), S John, P Davies (Llanelli), G O Llewellyn (Neath), A Gibbs (Newbridge), E Lewis (Cardiff), R Collins (Pontypridd). Replacements: M Back (Bridgend), R Moon, H Williams-Jones, R McBryde (Llanelli), D Jones, H Taylor (Cardiff).

WALES A (v Ireland A, Pontypridd, 17 March): J Thomas (Cardiff Institute); D Manley (Pontypridd), M Taylor (Pontypool), D Edwards (Leicester), S Hill (Cardiff); D Evans (Treorchy), P John (Pontypridd, capt); A Dibble (Treorchy), J Humphreys, L Mustoe (Cardiff), G Prosser (Pontypridd), A Copsey (Llanelli), C Wyatt (Neath), S Davies (Swansea), M Bennett (Cardiff). Replacements: G Wilkins (Bridgend), M McCarthy (Neath), A Moore, A Lewis (Cardiff), B Williams (Neath), P Arnold (Swansea).