Rugby Union: Wales look for finishing touch: Captain Evans has put his team on to the offensive as England loom large. Guy Hodgson reports

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IEUAN EVANS would stand apart in Wales even if he was not captain of the country's rugby union team. To have remained an impregnable first choice with selectors for whom the word fickle could have been invented is truly unique. The internationally undropped are like the undead in the Principality.

Yet the Llanelli wing has been a constant amid a whirlwind of change. Coaches, captains and players have come and gone like the tides but Evans has remained. He has 32 caps and would have more than a half a century had injury not interrupted the flow. Now the man whose finishing instincts have rarely been fully exploited by his country is leading in a cerebral rather than passionate manner from the extremity of the threequarters' line.

Last year Evans was handed the short straw of captaining a country whose decline had been charted by embarrassing defeats by Romania and Western Samoa and by humiliation in Australia. The appointment was queried at the time - the wing is too detached a position to be a normal source of on-field wisdom - but success of a qualified sort in last year's Five Nations' Championship has lowered most of the eyebrows.

Under the new management of the respected former Nottingham coach Alan Davies and the distinguished international Bob Norster, a recovery was achieved in 1992, albeit on the slightly flimsy foundation of only two tries in four Five Nations' matches. Two were won and joint second place with Scotland and France accomplished. Getting higher than this base camp, Evans agrees, will be the more difficult part.

'We've done the easy bit,' he said, 'because nobody expected us to do anything last season. We beat the World Cup semi-finalists Scotland, and won our first away game for a number of years, but to improve we have to do what we did last year and defeat one or both of England and France, who are the strongest of the European countries. We're optimistic but aware that it's going to be difficult.'

Particularly as next Saturday Wales will stand in the way of the England juggernaut which is gathering momentum and rolling towards a third successive Grand Slam. Wales sat out the first round of the Five Nations' campaign; in Cardiff they attempt to do what no European nation has managed since 1990. The weight of failure used to be on the visitors, who until two years ago had not won at the Arms Park since 1963, now they carry the pressure of success.

'The problem with England is that they find great difficulty in losing at the moment,' Evans said. 'They have got into a mode where it will take a very special performance to beat them.

'At Twickenham two weeks ago France looked the better side for three-quarters of the game. They should have won but England didn't panic, they carried on with what they've been doing for the past two years. The back of the mind must have been saying, 'Take it easy, no problem, we'll win,' and lo and behold they did. Successful sides win out of habit, much as Liverpool used to do in soccer in the Eighties. It becomes very difficult for the other side.'

Evans believes the match will gauge Wales's improvement since the nadir of Australia 1991 when the tour ended with a 63-6 Test defeat and punches being thrown at a post-match dinner in Brisbane. The fall-out from that debacle was the disillusionment of several leading players, the most notable being the captain, Paul Thorburn, who retired from international rugby.

Evans, too, sipped from the mood of despair. 'That tour was the worst I've ever felt,' he said. 'Demoralised, disillusioned, disheartened - call it what you may, you could spend all afternoon describing how I felt. It's an automatic response. You think, 'I can't go through this again. There must be more to life than losing by 60 points.' But any sportsman, if he feels he still has something to offer, will only be stopped by something specially traumatic. I'm still only 28. I've got a lot to offer.'

The appointment of Davies and Norster could not prevent an ignominious defeat by Western Samoa in the 1991 World Cup but even then Evans could discern 'a spark, something to reach out for from the tunnel'. To Davies he gives the credit for improving confidence and fitness. Most of all he acknowledges the attention to detail. 'Every player knows what he should be doing, no matter what the position on the field. International matches are won and lost in the preparation.

' Last year we concentrated on the defence. We had to start somewhere and we needed a good base to build from. It's what England and France do so well. But we want to expand on that this season and score some tries. It's not just the results that matter, it's the performance too.'

A more expansive Wales will suit Evans as he acknowledges his form in the Five Nations' will dictate whether he will be picked to tour New Zealand with the Lions this summer. The British Isles are blessed with strength in most positions but nowhere will the competition be keener than on the wings.

Evans toured Australia with the Lions in 1989, suffocating David Campese on six occasions, three times in the Tests. Never more effectively than in the try that decided the series. Rob Andrew sliced a drop-kick and Campese's attempt to clear was halted by a charging Evans, who picked up to score when the Australian's wild pass left his full-back in a more perilous position. Campese, a bewildering runner and prodigious scorer of tries, has yet to be successful in direct opposition to the Welshman.

'I'm not a lightningly fast winger,' Evans said, 'but I'm quick enough that players can't run round me. I'm an all-rounder, reasonable defence and a half-decent footballer. My strength is scoring. Most of the problem with Wales is that I haven't been put into promising positions but with my club (Llanelli) I've averaged around a try a game during my career. I'm a player who likes a challenge, who performs better in the biggest games.'

The magnitude will be sufficient next Saturday as Evans metamorphoses from the captain of little hope a year ago to a leader around whom a team encouraging optimism is being built. 'We've worked awfully hard over the last 12 months,' he said. 'The camaraderie is good, the attitude excellent. I feel this season could be a good one.'

(Photograph omitted)