Rugby Union: Wales on the rise to a class performance renews the smile

On Monday
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The Independent Online
THE GAME had been over, 30, maybe 45 minutes, when Allan Bateman came forward to be announced as the game's outstanding player. The ceremony was brief, Bateman then ducking out beneath the television cameras as though he had spotted the gap on his way into the room.

Bateman is a terrific player and at Wembley on Saturday he produced one of those terrific moments that make no demands upon understanding.

Rugby's modern complications dissolved in a burst of sheer brilliance as Bateman picked up a ball behind his own posts, swerved at speed past grabbing Scots, running for daylight and kicking clear.

Class performers make no demands upon the audience; it isn't necessary to probe for hidden qualities or to appreciate some subtle role in the wider scheme of things. Even people who are utterly ignorant of sport can identify them.

When the Wales coach, Kevin Bowring, was asked about Bateman a smile crossed the face made weary by that slaughter at Twickenham two weeks ago. "Allan is a pretty laid-back character," he said, "but he has a marvellous attitude."

The best players in any sport who have egos to act as a bulwark and team- mates to join in a common cause, have enough natural stimulation without the jive of managers and coaches. It isn't only the gift that sets them apart.

Does attitude hold the key to a revival of Welsh fortunes? In a newspaper article on Saturday morning, the former Wales and Lions captain John Dawes argued that the emphasis on strategy is stifling initiative. Many years ago Matt Busby said something similar about football. "Too much mind will make the game less entertaining," he said.

Saturday's match was entertaining but any number of old internationals present were quick to point out technical deficiencies and errors in decision- making. Doubtless, Scotland's coach, Jim Telfer, had that in mind when looking back on missed opportunities to build an unassailable lead by half-time. "We did enough to have scored three more tries," he said.

Considering the grief felt in Wales after the Twickenham debacle, a full house of 75,000 at Wembley amounted to nothing less than act of faith remarkable in its fervour. The outcome of another defeat was anybody's guess although Bowring would probably have been the victim of yet another shake-up.

Wales can no longer point to rugby league defections as a reason for decline. Professionalism means that nearly all the best Welsh players are available to Bowring and the pressure increases accordingly.

A television shot of Bowring, head in hands when it looked as though Scotland would capitalise further on their early superiority, was painfully revealing.

Setting out to play a fast game, spreading the ball wide, Scotland seemed set to extend the agony felt by the Welsh captain Robert Howley - "the worst two weeks of my time in rugby" - has felt since Twickenham.

Scotland's profligate finishing let Wales off the hook and the introduction of Arwel Thomas for Neil Jenkins, who went off with a head injury, changed things. Far from being the finished article at outside-half, Thomas is, nevertheless, an instinctive footballer and his sleight of hand gave Scotland problems they hadn't budgeted for. "We knew what to expect from Jenkins, so we had to think again," Telfer said.

Two penalties by Thomas kept Wales in touch and the second half saw a much improved forward effort. Now it was Scotland's turn to be on the back foot as Howley's game gathered momentum. Mike Proctor's try, converted brilliantly from the touchline was the cue for a choral response and another Thomas penalty did for Scotland.

A match to defy bleak prognoses for the future of the Five Nations but yet one to emphasise the difficulties imposed on the Celtic nations by professionalism. Bateman, Howley, Scott Gibbs, Gregor Townsend, Rob Wainright. Here are players to thrill any heart but how, with limited resources, do you build something around them?