Rugby Union: Walker on the run for Wales: Steve Bale on an Olympic hurdler who has winged his way into rugby's spotlight

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The Independent Online
WALKER-for-Wales is a handy alliteration which states a likely eventuality rather than some vague hope. All it has taken is four games - and five tries - for Cardiff to turn an international athlete into an international rugby prospect. Today, when he faces Llanelli at Stradey Park, will tell us the truth about Nigel Walker.

Walker? He can't half run. The wing is a contemporary and compatriot of his fellow Olympic 110m hurdler Colin Jackson; indeed at one time he was at least Jackson's equal and sometimes his superior. In the 1987 world indoor championship Walker beat Jackson for the bronze medal (though Jackson took silver and Walker bronze in that year's Europeans). 'Don't do it,' Jackson pleaded when his friend stated his intentions. 'They'll break you in half.'

Instead, it is opposing defences who have been broken. He had not handled a rugby ball with intent since he was a schoolboy, but when he returned to the game after 11 years he played it as if he had never been away. At 29, Walker, a former British champion, has given up hurdling but threatens to sprint into the Wales team in his very first season.

'It may sound corny but my first love was always rugby,' he said. He began training in the summer and announced himself with nine tries in each of two sevens tournaments. The Heineken League having proved no more of an obstacle than a high hurdle, he was this week named in the Welsh development squad; with more experience, he would have been in the full squad for Wednesday's game with Italy.

Mind you, Walker is deceptive, because when last he took rugby seriously he was good enough to be a final Welsh Schools trialist. This was a lad with twin aspirations, and when one was dashed he made his choice. 'I was 18 and in the Great Britain athletics squad,' he recalled. 'But when the GB squad coincided with the final Welsh Schools trial I went to the trial.

'I didn't get in and decided rugby selection was so subjective it could sometimes appear unfair, whereas athletics was more objective. It was almost like tossing a coin. I'd always wanted to play rugby since I was 11 but when you get to the final stage like that, you have to please selectors and your face has to fit.' Rugby's loss and all that . . . a certain Peter Cartwright was the preferred choice.

So Walker was no novice when he belatedly returned to his first love. He may not have had any recent rugby experience, but he was an Olympic semi-finalist (in Los Angeles in 1984) and the vast experience of competitive pressure gained from 30 appearances for Britain made the Heineken League small beer by comparison.

It was another friend, the Cardiff and Wales centre Mark Ring, who finally convinced Walker after he had failed to make the British team for Barcelona. 'I had been thinking about it for a couple of years - sometimes seriously, sometimes not,' Walker said. 'A week before the Olympic trials Mark approached me but I told him it wasn't the appropriate time.

'I came fifth when I needed to be in the top three and I was having a problem with my back which was aggravated by my hurdling, so I went down and gave it a try. It was surprising how quickly it came back. Within a couple of sessions I was handling the ball as well as I had ever done.

'I think there was a certain natural scepticism among the Cardiff players but, when they saw me for two or three weeks and realised I'd played before, I was assimilated very quickly. The players and coaches were excellent; they took me one step at a time. I asked a million and one questions and they gave me all the answers.'

There is nothing new about leading athletes - this one is a civil servant at the Welsh Office - turning to contact sport. Renaldo Nehemiah, Willie Gault and Ron Brown all played American football after distinguished track careers; even in the limited world of Welsh rugby Walker follows a notable line. Ken Jones, for many years Wales's leading cap- holder, ran in the 1948 Olympics; in the 1970s, J J Williams was an international sprinter.

What they all had was the most precious gift in sport, the one thing no one can teach you: pace. And Walker has it in abundance. His fastest 100m time, 10.35sec, was wind-assisted but even his official best, 10.47, makes him the third-fastest Welshman of all time (behind Jackson and Ron Jones) and faster than any of the other speed merchants who grace either code of rugby. Patrice Lagisquet's best, for instance, was 10.50. Martin Offiah has been clocked at 10.70, Rory Underwood at 11.

So Cardiff were well aware that Walker could run. 'I knew he had played rugby before and expected him to have some idea of ball skills. What did surprise me was how well he took the bumps,' the captain, Mike Hall, said. 'He brings the same dedication to rugby as he did to athletics.'

This is the same Mike Hall who plays centre for Cardiff but played in Walker's position, left wing, for Wales against Italy. 'Pick Walker instead of me' blared a headline in the South Wales Echo last month over an interview in which Hall, a notoriously reluctant wing, seemed to suggest the newcomer should displace him.

Not so, Hall now says, though he concedes it will happen sooner or later. 'What I said was that he was a very exciting player. Obviously he needs more experience for Cardiff before they can pick him but, considering there aren't many left wings around in Wales, if he keeps improving he's going to get there in the end. But I'm not offering to give up my place.'

By then, though, the Walker bandwagon was rolling. 'If I was half as good as some of the reports have made me out to be, Gerald Davies would be a poor second,' he said, referring to a former Wales wing of more proven distinction. 'My plan was to establish myself in the Cardiff team by Christmas. But then the Western Mail had a headline 'Walker for Wales?' and I thought perhaps this guy knows something I don't.

'Then Mike Hall was quoted saying I should have his position if they intended to pick him on the wing. Then the pin-prick came when the squad was actually announced. In the end I was a bit deflated but I feel I've made tremendous strides over the past month or so and if I continue in the same vein there's no reason why I can't force my way into the squad before or just after Christmas.

'I may be a novice in rugby but I've been around international sport a long time. Optimism is one thing, realism another, and they don't always come together. But you have to revise your ambitions as you make improvement and it's a reasonable ambition to get in for the Five Nations' Championship.'

As Robert Norster, the Wales manager, took the trouble to inform the Cardiff coach, Terry Holmes, that Walker lacked only experience and should not be dejected, in this case optimism and realism may well turn out to be the same thing.

First, though, come harder tests than anything he has faced thus far, beginning today in direct confrontation with the Wales captain, Ieuan Evans. If he succeeds at Stradey, 'Walker for Wales' will suddenly become more than a slogan.

(Photograph omitted)

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