Rugby Union: Wyatt thrives in a changing world

Five Nations: Football loses out as Welsh rugby reaps the benefits of a burly teenager who switched codes at 17
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The Independent Online
PONTYPOOL IS not exactly on the road to Damascus, but eight years ago an astonishing conversion took place. It was in the heart of Gwent rugby country that football-loving Chris Wyatt was finally introduced to rugby.

He had resisted a lot longer than most, passed his 17th birthday before handling an oval ball in anger. But in the end he had little option. He was hi-jacked at Pontypool College while he was looking for the football crew.

"I made the mistake of asking the rugby coach where the soccer boys were training," said Wyatt. The college coach looked Wyatt up and down his 6ft 5in frame and decided that this hefty teenager was just what he was looking for.

Wyatt added: "He said to me: `You're too big to play football and anyway we need a second row'. I had no choice. I was made to play even though I didn't know the rules."

Wyatt does now, though. But he found it tough at first. "I had to get used to just accepting the referee's decision," explained Wyatt, who played at centre- forward and centre-half for Newport AFC in his formative years and more recently for his local pub, the Parc-y-Prior in Malpas.

"When I first took up rugby I would play that on a Saturday then turn out for the pub side on the Sunday. I haven't played for a couple of years now except for the odd kick-around."

Rugby in effect took over. He scored two tries on his debut for the college and has gone ever onward and upward. If there is any surprise at all as regards Wyatt's career it is the fact that he took so long. His father Phil played lock and No 8 for the Prison Service and when he was posted to Albany on the Isle of Wight he played alongside Mark Mapletoft's father, another prison officer at the time.

Wyatt Jnr has now been blooded at the highest level and a fortnight ago in Edinburgh had his first taste of the Five Nations' Championship, when winning his fifth cap in the second row for Wales against Scotland.

It ended in defeat and bitter disappointment for the team but was something of a personal triumph for Wyatt, the 17st 4lb Llanelli lock. A computer programme set up specifically to measure individual performance throughout the match, covering all aspects of the game from ball winning, ball retention, tackles made, missed and so on, saw the 25-year-old Wyatt emerge with the highest score, some 20 points more than Scotland's outstanding contributor, John Leslie.

The accolade washes off his back. He had wanted victory on his Five Nations debut. So now he is looking for success against Ireland at Wembley tomorrow.

"We were all very disappointed after the Scotland match," he said. "We know we are capable of competing with anyone on an even footing on our day. As far as Ireland goes, we know what to expect.They will be up on us in numbers if we let them. But that somehow makes it easier for us to get up for this one.

"We will have to go toe-to-toe with them and graft. We have been bumped and bruised in training over the last couple of days in preparation for the Irish. And, despite what happened in Edinburgh, we are going in with a positive attitude."

They will need it. The Ireland tight five is about as good as you will find anywhere in the world right now. They are certainly the cream of the northern hemisphere crop and can give the sub-equatorial sides a hard time.

The likes of the props Peter Clohessy, Paul Wallace and the dynamic hooker Keith Wood create mayhem around the park as well in the set-pieces and at the line-out they do not come much harder or more canny than Paddy Johns and Jeremy Davidson. It is just as well for the Welsh front five to go in better prepared than they have ever been.

Wyatt dismissed talk of his colleagues' relative inexperience. "We may be young," he said, "but we have all been around for a while and have gathered a fair amount of experience."

Not least the man himself. In mountaineering terms his learning curve has resembled K2. He has found the right sort of assistance on the way, though, not least in the way the Welsh Rugby Union and Newport Rugby Club sorted out a six-month spell in the hard backyards of New Zealand club rugby for Western United in North Harbour.

"It was a fantastic experience," said Wyatt, "and a great benefit to my game. I was playing for Newport Youth over here at the time. And I was down there at the same the Lions' were touring, so rugby had an even higher profile. The club I was with were so desperately short of second- row players that I went straight into the first team.

"Although the standard in New Zealand is very different at club level from provincial level, in other words it is not that marvellous, I was still surprised when I returned home at how much I had learned."

He is also possessed of natural sporting ability. He puts his athleticism around the pitch and at the line-out down to his years of playing basketball and, to a lesser extent, volleyball.

And Wyatt reckoned: "Basketball is an ideal training sport for rugby, firstly because of the immense fitness levels you need to play the game, also because of the furious pace at which it is played; and the hand-eye co-ordination and jumping ability all apply to my role in the second row."

Wyatt moved from Newport to Neath in 1994 where a further conversion took place and he found himself in the back row. He won Wales A honours at The Gnoll but then moved further west to Llanelli, his present club.

When he needs to escape he goes down to the river to fish. "I don't mind if I don't catch anything," explained Wyatt, "it is just great to be able to sit on the river bank and contemplate everything around me."

There is no chance he would rather be fishing tomorrow. He wants to pull on that red jersey for his country. "It is a little disappointing that I am not playing a Five Nations match in Cardiff," he admitted, "but the fans have made Wembley a second home for us. And the Irish have always maintained that Cardiff is like playing at home for them, so maybe by playing at Wembley we will break the sequence." He will certainly give it a try.

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