Rugby Union: Wallaby jumps to Cardiff cause: Steve Bale on the task facing Alex Evans, charged with reviving a dormant Welsh giant

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The Independent Online
If credit had been paid where it was due, Alex Evans would by now be a figure of world rugby renown - like, say, the Wallaby coach Bob Dwyer - instead of an unfamiliar Australian on whom Cardiff have played a hunch in placing the responsibility for their revival.

On the other hand, perhaps the club knew exactly what they were doing, because Evans, a 52-year- old former teacher from Brisbane, is a coach of the highest pedigree. The former Wallaby wing Ian Williams, an Evans man if ever there was one, calls him 'the finest technical coach in Australia' and even wishes he had ousted Dwyer in charge of the Wallabies.

As Evans has been this way before, Cardiff appear to have acquired the ideal man. When he started playing for Queensland, everyone beat them; nowadays the state side are better than most international teams. In last season's Heineken League First Division, nearly everyone beat Cardiff; the 'greatest' (their own description) club in the world would have been relegated but for the convenient fact that there was no relegation.

Cardiff's solution was an inspiration. First they tried Bob Templeton, Australia's assistant coach, and although he turned them down - fetching up, coincidentally, at Harlequins - he was glad to recommend his old friend and colleague. Evans liked the idea, Cardiff agreed to pay him around pounds 30,000 to be their coaching organiser for a year, and the deal was struck. Evans and his wife are contentedly living in one of the city's smartest areas and, all being well, will next June be offered the option to renew.

A coaching panel including such luminaries as Terry Holmes and Charlie Faulkner was gathered around him, but even so he could scarcely have known what he had let himself in for. It had been a season of deep division: a power struggle between the coach, Alan Phillips, and manager, John Scott, culminated in first one and then the other resigning. It became the worst season in Cardiff's history.

Today, Cardiff play Pontypridd at the Arms Park in a league fixture which will tell a sceptical public a little more of whether Evans is making progress in solving the perennial Cardiff problem: how to weld a disparate collection of gifted individuals into a team. Last Saturday's narrow defeat of promoted Aberavon, featuring as it did the dismissal of the Lions prop Mike Griffiths, was an unconvincing initiation.

'The first few games are very important but I believe if we can get through them and build confidence we can actually win it,' Evans said. 'Cardiff certainly have the athletes to do so if they work together and enjoy it. There's been a lack of enjoyment through many things, through the lack of support from many people and also the blow-up they had last year. We have to heal a few scars.'

This is unexceptionable, the sort of thing that has often been heard at Cardiff over the past few years. But the fact that it comes from Evans, the outsider who carries none of the baggage of Cardiff's recent failure and onerous tradition, lends it unusual credibility.

'I knew the significance of Cardiff being at the bottom,' he said. 'I'm aware of, but not intimidated by, the history that's around me. They're used to winning and it's pretty difficult to come down a rung - but that would be the same anywhere. We have work to do to develop skills and a pattern of play that will stand up to competitive rugby. The fact is that other sides lift themselves to beat Cardiff and that makes it more difficult but also an exceptional challenge.'

Not least of the reasons Evans knew about Cardiff was because his own Wallabies lost to them before bouncing back to a celebrated Grand Slam in 1984. Yes, his Wallabies. Evans was the unassuming one who hogged the background while Alan Jones made the noise and attracted the kudos. The home unions' committee refused to acknowledge his presence and would not pay him the daily allowance, and his picture and biographical details never appeared in a match programme.

Yet he was at the very heart of developing that great side with Jones, to whom he was assistant from 1984 until both were pushed aside in 1987. Evans, rather than Jones, was the man under whose tutelage the '84 Australian pack recovered from their mauling by Cardiff to beat Wales with such ease that they inflicted the indignity of a pushover try.

His own career had been cruelly disrupted by misfortune. Evans had captained Queensland and would have won a Wallaby cap but for contracting hepatitis while on tour in New Zealand in 1960. Much later, to the outrage of Jones and others, he did not become the Queensland coach, only the assistant. And there are many, Jones of course included, who believe he should have done the top job.

He went excruciatingly close. In 1990, Evans tied with Bob Dwyer in the election for Wallaby coach, Dwyer keeping his place on the second preferences of a third candidate, Paul Dalton. These, however, are not issues for Evans, who has had a different battle to fight - against a serious blood disease - since losing that vote. But the endemic politicking of Australian rugby has perfectly prepared him for Cardiff, where even the greatest past in the club rugby world means nothing when set against present failure.

Evans has set a trend by appointing his own captain, the Wales centre Mike Hall, without the prior approval of either committee or players, and has had no compunction about speaking his mind to either. His half-time diatribe at his forwards at Aberavon was a case in point, and he will undoubtedly do the same today if he deems it necessary.

'When I arrived I found a lot of disappointment within the club and the skill factor was not as high as I had hoped,' Evans said. 'But the athletic ability and physiological side was good, the keenness was there, and the development of new skills happened very quickly. Against Aberavon we were very close to what I want. They have the potential; they just have to believe in themselves.'

Fair dinkum. The only trouble is, Evans's predecessors have been saying exactly the same for years and years.