Rugby Union: Wales' local hero

Robert Cole finds the star of the summer is ready for a long hard winter
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The Independent Online
Ask Neil Jenkins, the slayer of the Springboks, to talk about his trip to South Africa with the Lions this summer and he'll tell you "that's history".

In the professional world it seems that even the greatest achievements in a player's career quickly become old hat. It's ever onward and, if Jenkins has his way, ever upward.

But it will take a lot to top being a Lion, and a winning one to boot. "Becoming a Lion meant everything to me. It was the fulfilment of a lifelong rugby dream," Jenkins said. "What happened to me out in South Africa was all the better because before the tour I thought my broken arm wouldn't heal quickly enough for me to go. There was always something in the back of my mind telling me I wasn't going to make it. But I did and the team played some great rugby.

"Winning the series, especially their second game when we were on the back foot for so long, was rather special. But it has all gone now. It is nice to have good memories but you've got to look forward."

So the points machine from Sardis Road has immediately set himself new goals - success for both club, for whom the domestic league season starts as early as Saturday, and country. "There is still a hell of a lot to play for and I think I've got at least another five to eight years in me," Jenkins said. "I suppose I now have set my sights on winning the Heineken Cup with Pontypridd and the World Cup with Wales in 1999.

"They are two trophies that not many players are lucky enough to get their hands on. I set my sights on becoming a Lion - now they are fixed on achieving other things."

Jenkins will kick off his winter campaign by leading his Welsh champions into the new Welsh National League Premiership against the Swalec Cup holders, Cardiff, on Saturday. As if that is not a tough enough start, there will be an international for Wales against Romania in Wrexham on 30 August and then the mouth-watering prospect of a European re-run against Bath when the Heineken Cup kicks off on 6 September.

But while the Heineken Cup may dominate the early part of the season, Jenkins knows that his team can take nothing for granted as they seek a third successive season with a major trophy in Wales, after their first cup triumph in 1996 and first championship last season. Jenkins is happy with the way Pontypridd have picked up a number of significant signings this summer, and he was also pleased to hear of the impressive development of his talented teenaged threequarters, Kevin Morgan and Gareth Wyatt, on the Wales tour to North America this summer.

"We look as though we are going to have plenty of gas behind the scrum this season. The signing of Dafydd James from Bridgend will give us new options behind the scrum," Jenkins said.

"The reduced league of eight clubs is going to mean there will be no easy games this season. Cardiff, Swansea and Llanelli all look threatening and every Saturday is going to be a test for us.

"As far as the Heineken Cup is concerned we want to go one or two steps further than we did in the opening two seasons. We lost by a point in Leinster in the first year, which cost us a semi-final place against Cardiff, and our only defeat last season was by a couple of points in Dax. That ultimately meant we failed to qualify for the knock-out stage."

This season the draw has dealt Ponty a tricky hand by pooling them with Bath, who they comfortably defeated last seasons, the reigning champions Brive and Scottish Borders. No room for complacency there.

But while one eye will be fixed on the European tournament Jenkins is determined that his men continue to rule the roost in Wales. "Playing for Pontypridd was the key for me playing for the Lions. We are very passionate about our rugby at the club and we all play for each other.

"Our players put their bodies on the line week in week out and no one is afraid to tell a team-mate when they've let them down. That means anything is possible because everyone is committed to the cause - and each other. We've got a great set of forwards and there are some real grafters throughout the team. We play a brand of rugby that we all enjoy and everyone is keen to keep improving."

Despite the summer silly- season talk of a potential transfer to cash-rich English clubs, the Pontypridd captain has no intentions of moving from Sardis Road. In any case it would take a huge sum to make it worth his while, because not only does he get money from club and country, but the long-standing sponsors of Pontypridd, Just Rentals, employ the town's most famous son in a marketing capacity and pay him a small fortune.

There is also a flashy car which accompanies the job and, in any case, Jenkins enjoys his association with the company. "I owe an enormous amount to my bosses. They have made rugby the first, second and third priorities with work coming after that," Jenkins said. "Why should I move? I'm playing with a great club in a style which I enjoy and I've got a great job as well."

Everything in his garden looks rosy, but Jenkins knows that the picture could change quickly. Do not bank on it, however, because Pontypridd have the look of Welsh champions and if Jenkins carries his Lions form into the winter then a Welsh club could emerge as European standard-bearers.

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