Hansen builds up Jenkins for front-row battle

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The Independent Online

Coaches make extravagant claims on behalf of their players for one of two reasons: the people concerned are either performing miracles, as Martin Johnson was for England at the climax of his career, or they are up to their eyebrows in strife and in dire need of a confidence transfusion.

Coaches make extravagant claims on behalf of their players for one of two reasons: the people concerned are either performing miracles, as Martin Johnson was for England at the climax of his career, or they are up to their eyebrows in strife and in dire need of a confidence transfusion.

Steve Hansen of Wales, now in his last fortnight as chief strategist of the Red Dragonhood, could not conceivably describe his front row as a world-beating triumvirate, so his comments yesterday must have been designed to cheer them up.

The Welsh scrummagers were mangled, marmalised and very nearly maimed by the French at the Millennium Stadium in the last round of the Six Nations' Championship, and many expect a similar outcome when they take on England at Twickenham tomorrow. Hansen has dropped two-thirds of his front row, recalling Duncan Jones and Robbie McBryde to arms in place of Iestyn Thomas and Mefin Davies, but the Jeremiahs of the valleys still fear the worst. No scrum equals no ball, and no ball equals humiliation.

In an effort to make the Welsh tight forwards feel a little better about themselves, Hansen singled them out for praise. Not least Gethin Jenkins of the Celtic Warriors, the one surviving member of the front-row unit smashed by the Tricolores. The 22-year-old rookie propped on both sides of the scrum that day and suffered a comprehensive beating for his pains. The very fact that he volunteered for the dual role impressed Hansen, who believes Jenkins will quickly emerge as one of Welsh rugby's new generation of top-grade internationals.

"People criticised Gethin after the French game, but he is a player of considerable potential," the coach said. "He's certainly fit - he can cover a three-kilometre run far quicker than any 18st forward I've come across in the past."

But what about his scrummaging, the fundamental aspect of a prop forward's game? It is all very well running around like Steve Ovett, but a powder-puff performance in the set-piece can wreck an entire game plan. Hansen was having none of it.

"Tight head is the toughest position on the pitch, and the easiest position in which to cop a hiding," he said. "Gethin's ability to play both sides - the fact that he wants to play both sides - makes him exceptionally valuable.

"Jason Leonard won 114 caps for England, partly because he could perform on either side of the scrum, and he would be the first to admit that he took some beatings playing at tight head. And remember, he had Johnson up his arse for most of his career. Gethin is playing with people who are still learning what it is to be a Test second row. That's a big difference."

There is little doubt that England will go after Wales in the scrums - Jones and McBryde acknowledged as much yesterday. At the same time, the Welsh plan to plunder England's line-out, just as Ireland did 13 days ago.

"I think we have systems in place to take advantage of England in that area," Hansen agreed. "It will all come down to our execution, and how they cope with us if we succeed in applying some pressure."

Hansen flies home to New Zealand on 20 April, to take up a job as assistant coach to the All Blacks. The head coach, Graham Henry, was Hansen's predecessor in the Wales job - confusing, isn't it? - and the two men have already met in Cardiff to discuss future plans. Tomorrow, though, Hansen will be as Welsh as anyone at Twickenham. He may even sing the national anthem.

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