Rugby Union: Walker banking on belief: Geoffrey Nicholson meets the Welsh wing keen to answer his country's Grand Slam prayers

Click to follow
The Independent Online
CAME the 79th minute - with France at their wits' end to close the two-point gap - came the man again, Scott Quinnell. And this time there was Nigel Walker, at his side. How does Walker remember the next few seconds? 'Vividly,' he says, and laughs. 'I've probably watched it 30 or 40 times since then, if that doesn't make me sound vain.'

Not vain in the least. Just delighted at the way things turned out for himself and for Wales. Wearing glasses, a surprise, he sits behind his desk at the Sports Council offices in Cardiff, where he works as a development officer, looking relaxed and administrative, but there's still a buzz after last Saturday.

He likes his work, feels thoroughly at ease in the Welsh squad and the Cardiff club, pays handsome tribute to those who have helped him, and has no bad word for anyone. He has a two-year-old marriage and a baby daughter. And as an enthusiastic talker he is gratified that Radio Wales should pay him to present a weekly magazine programme, Walkeround Sport. 'You'd think you'd have to pay them.'

But back to the French game. 'It was just a great team effort. Mike Hall had a tremendous game in defence, so did Anthony Clement and Mike Rayer. Neil Jenkins was everywhere, and the back row. It was a case of stopping them at all costs.'

So to that final minute. 'I didn't even tackle my opposite number because there were so many people across. So I decided to hang back in case there was a chip, or somebody looped around. I saw the ball go loose and pop into Quinnell's hands, and I thought, support on the inside. I wasn't thinking of a try, but if I got the ball there'd be another pair of hands and perhaps we could waste a few more seconds. But as it happened I caught the ball and suddenly the line opened up. I put my foot on the gas, and fortunately the cover couldn't cut me off.

'Superb. Just the sort of thing you wish you could relive and relive and relive and relive. You'd never get sick and tired of it. And then the reaction of the crowd. They'd been superb throughout the game, but at that moment they went crazy. Like everyone else I just felt very proud.'

The remarkable thing about that ecstatic moment was that it came to Walker at the age of 29 when he had been playing senior rugby for less than 18 months. He'd emerged as a promising schoolboy player at Rhymney HS and reached a final Welsh trial at 18. But he wasn't selected, and having meanwhile become a civil servant in the Welsh Department, where he remained for 11 years, he decided to concentrate on his other talent, hurdling. He was already a GB junior champion. 'To be perfectly honest, I wasn't fast enough to be a sprinter, but I was fast enough to hurdle.' Or play on the wing. He would go on to cover 100 metres in 10.34 windy and 10.47 legal, which would show a clean pair of heels to any back in the Five Nations.

His best season was 1987 when he took a bronze medal in the world indoor championships, with the 20-year-old Colin Jackson in fourth place. But this was the last time he beat Jackson, 'a phenomenal talent', and over the next few years he felt he had gone as far as he could in athletics. 'Also I suppose, deep down I wanted to put my money where my mouth was. From time to time I'd watch matches and say if that was me perhaps I would have scored. So if I was going to make the change it had to be now.'

The chance came when Mark Ring, a friend, asked him to come along to Cardiff. 'Alex Evans was the coach at the time, and Australians like to turn athletes into rugby players. Alex obviously saw something he liked, and decided to gamble on it.' In a sevens tournament during a pre-season camp at Plymouth, Walker managed to give away 17 points in three minutes. 'But Alex said afterwards, don't worry. Before the season ends you'll have people standing on the seats applauding you. Even when things have gone wrong, I've always remembered that.'

Apart from Evans's encouragement, Walker says he also owes a lot, on the fitness side, to Keith Lancey, a Cardiff Institute lecturer who comes out training with him in all weathers. 'Without him I couldn't have made the conversion, because the difference between running 110 metres hurdles and playing for 80 minutes is as wide as a field. And his wife's been superb; she's my physio.'

After only five games for Cardiff in the autumn of 1992 he was drafted into the Welsh development squad, scored a hat-trick in an A match against the Netherlands in the January, and bore out Evans's prediction by getting his first Five Nations try against France. Even in his short time with the squad, Walker has seen a massive change in the Welsh side, putting them within reach of a Grand Slam. From tightening up the defence, which was Alan Davies's first priority, the team has gone on to looking for ways to attack. 'I don't believe that success ever comes about by accident. But now things are in place - the coaching, management, backroom staff and the players. But the one magic ingredient is confidence.

'Those players now believe in themselves. We're happy as a squad. We all want to win for each other. In a team sport, without that you're never going to win.'