Dwayne Peel is confused and a quick scan through Wales' recent back issues confirms he has every right to be. In one headline he is hailed as the best scrum-half in the world and, in seemingly the very next, he should only be second choice for his country. "That's why I don't take any notice of what's said and written," he said. "Like you say, one month I'm great, the next I'm not. It's all swings and roundabouts and, although people are entitled to their opinion, I'm entitled to ignore it and just get on with it. It's what I've learnt to do in this industry. That's the way it goes."
Peel is rather fond of the saying "that's the way it goes". A laid-back personality that is directly at odds with the livewire whose flashing instinct has electrified many a dank park, the young West Walian is most comfortable when the tape recorders are switched off and the pencils are back behind ears. The catalyst for his wariness is obvious when one considers all the Ruddockgate recriminations that remarkably still rumble through the Principality a full year after the mysterious exit of the Grand Slam-winning coach.
But there is one subject that takes the easy out of his going. The 25-year-old is not the only "Untouchable" who suddenly felt the cold hand of scepticism earlier this season when Mike Phillips, the burly Blues No 9, launched a challenge that many seriously suggested would result in him supplanting Peel for tomorrow's Six Nations opener against Ireland in Cardiff.
Stephen Jones, his half-back partner, national captain and close friend, also witnessed a giant question mark temporarily replace his halo, after a shaky display against New Zealand coincided with the emergence of the latest boy wonder in James Hook. "Stephen's a great player regardless of all the daft criticism he's had over the last few months," said Peel. "And he's not coming to an end as some may have suggested. He'll be a tremendous asset for Wales for many years to come. But Stephen's like me. He knows that's the way it goes. All we can control is our rugby and it doesn't really matter what anyone but the coaches think."
Fortunately, Gareth Jenkins has never once wavered in his belief in the pairing he, himself, first put together when the overlord of Stradey Park and it was not just this Llanelli link that had the Welsh coach off his chair when the Scarlets were winning in Toulouse and Ulster earlier this month. With a few superlative showings, Peel and Jones were so plainly heads and shoulders above again and inevitably all the talk now is about how impregnable they are, rather than how vulnerable.
Last weekend saw plaudits come thick and fast, with Matt Dawson describing them as "the best Welsh half-back partnership since Edwards and Bennett" and Graham Henry reiterating that "they are the best 9 and 10 unit in the northern hemisphere".
Peel is understandably proud of a marriage made under the bread of heaven. "You know, it's great to have someone outside who you've been playing with for seven years," he said last week at his home near Llanelli. "It begins to become almost second nature what they're going to do and although it's going too far to say we're telepathic or anything, you do learn character traits and can guess what they're thinking. It's like the Irish boys [Peter] Stringer and [Ronan] O'Gara. There's a trust and assuredness there built on familiarity and, of course, it helps when you've been operating in tandem for season after season. It shouldn't be underestimated."
Indeed, it is a bond that will take some breaking, even surviving the recent elevation of Captain Jones from infantry to officer class. "I do take the mick out of Stephen about becoming skipper," confessed Peel. "But that's the sort of relationship we've got. We're very close and live about 15 minutes away from each other and go out for meals and stuff. So there's plenty of banter and, anyway, throughout this Welsh squad there are leaders everywhere to bring him down to earth."
Peel might now even include himself among this rank, a claim that would have been ridiculed not so long ago. In fact, when Phil Davies, the Scarlets coach, reacted to injuries by throwing Peel the armband earlier this season, the raised eyebrows encroached on a thousand foreheads. Looking back, Peel is adamant it is exactly what he needed.
"I've definitely grown up the last few years and it was the right time to be captain for the first time since I was a kid," he said. "I had no choice but to take more responsibility and I really enjoyed it. It's all part of me becoming more vocal and more vocal on the pitch. In the early years I wasn't, but that's because when you're a skinny 20-year-old, it's hard to look up at someone like Scott Quinnell, 6ft 5in and 19st or whatever, and be telling him what to do. That tends to shut you up a bit. But the No 9 position demands you're heard and that's why I've learnt to be."
He believes he may have been helped in this regard by the desertion of his best mate to the French league three years ago. He still had Jones on his outside shoulder for Wales, but at Stradey he was, for the first time, cast adrift. It was sink or swim time. "During my early years, when Stephen was there, he was such a big figure in Welsh sport that it was natural for him to be the dominant one," remembered Peel. "And when he went it was sad and everything, but I also saw it as a chance for me to take the senior role in the half-backs.
"Who knows, if he'd hung around then it might have been hard to change the dynamic. Let's just say it's worked out for both of us because France definitely brought something else to his game as well. Now he's back in Llanelli, there's no senior partner and we both call the shots."
The reunion would not have been possible, however, had Peel accepted one of the many Premiership offers to cross the Severn last summer and, although he is now unequivocal in saying "I made a fantastic decision to stay", he must have been sorely tempted to start afresh at the end of a campaign that brought only pain and frustration.
After the Grand Slam of 2005 and a Lions tour to New Zealand - on which he was one of the few to emerge with his reputation still rising - it had all appeared so easy. "But then last season proved to be a bit of a nightmare," he said. "I had a few injuries, was in the operating theatre and I hardly played before the Six Nations. But then just as the internationals came along and I was building up some good form - bang, I get injured again and the season is more or less over. It was so frustrating. But hey, it wasn't the first setback I've had and it won't be the last. I'm just glad to be fine now."
Wales will declare he is slightly more than "fine" and is one of the principal reasons for the overload of optimism in the Valleys. Peel is not about to shoot it down. "We've got a strong squad and we can do a job whatever," he said. "Momentum is really important in rugby and, if we can get a result first up against Ireland and then get on a roll... well at the Scarlets we've proved how hard it is to beat a side when they're like that. The same was true in the Grand Slam year, I guess, although what we need to do is focus on the here and now and not dwell too much on the past. It has been said that as a nation we probably do a bit too much looking back. That's the way it goes, I suppose."
It takes two: Great Welsh half-back partnerships
* REX WILLIS AND CLIFF MORGAN
Morgan called his scrum-half "Sexy Rexy" and a partnership was forged at Cardiff, where Morgan, the future "voice of rugby", was chaperoned by his more experienced scrum-half. The pair were instrumental in the Wales Grand Slam of 1952, but their finest achievement was in twice beating the All Blacks in 1953 - for club and for country.
* GARETH EDWARDS AND BARRY JOHN
"You chuck 'em, I'll catch 'em," Barry told Gareth. The finest two talents in Welsh history made it look simple for 23 Tests, beating New Zealand for the Lions and winning a Grand Slam with Wales. In 2002, they were named the half-backs in "Wales' greatest team ever".
* GARETH EDWARDS AND PHIL BENNETT
After "The King" came "Benno". The new pair (pictured) won two Grand Slams and four championships. Their most memorable game, however, was the Barbarians' victory over New Zealand in 1973, Bennett starting the move that led to Edwards' famous try.
* ROBERT JONES AND JONATHAN DAVIES
Their partnership was one of few lights of the dark days of the late 1980s and early 1990s, although it was sadly curtailed by Davies' move to rugby league with Widnes. They did have the 1988 Triple Crown to show for their efforts, which were based on Davies' quick-witted genius at No 10 and Jones' technical brilliance from the base of the scrum.Reuse content