Howley's resurgence inspired by the rising Moon

Tim Glover says this week's battle of the Welsh halves will be a friendly one
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The Independent Online

When Robert Howley took the call informing him that he had been dropped by Wales, he and Rupert Moon were attending the christening of Ieuan Evans' son. "We had a chat about it and he wished me well," Moon said. "I didn't say sorry for what had happened. There's no need. We go back a long way and it's not a personal thing."

It's been a cruel six months for Howley. In the World Cup he seemed to have the weight of Wales on his shoulders. Subsequently, he lost the captaincyand, after the defeat by England, his place to Moon. "Happiness," said Rupert, "is a man called Moon." And the other scrum-half has been as sick as a parrot.

On Saturday, when Llanelli play Cardiff in the quarter-finals of the Heineken European Cup at Stradey Park, Moon and his partner Stephen Jones will be opposed by Howley and Neil Jenkins, the half-backs they displaced on the national stage. "I don't bear a grudge," Howley said. "Moony's been a great ambassador for Llanelli and Wales. He's a player of experience and quality."

The feeling is more than mutual. "Rob is one of the best scrum-halves in the world and I say that with my hand on my heart," Moon said. "He will relight the fire very soon. We all go through bad spells and he'll use what's happened. I wasn't in the Welsh trial and I was a million miles away from international rugby but at Llanelli I'd been joking that if things went pear- shaped, Wales would turn to me, and funnily enough that's what happened. I was gobsmacked."

Moon, the Englishman who has adopted Cymru with the passion of Owain Glyndwr, had last played for Wales as a replacement against England in 1995. His recall last month was not greeted with critical acclaim in the Principality. "When I took over from Robert Jones I had to listen to former players having a pop. They say things because they have to and this time it's been no different. They kept harping on about my deficiencies until they were blue in the face. I've been around too long to let things affect me."

A Brummie, he started playing in Wales many moons ago, for Abertillery, Neath and Llanelli, where he has been a key player for 10 years. Graham Henry selected him, at the age of 32, for his enthusiasm, vision and resilience, plus the fact that his vocal input during a match almost amounts to a filibuster.

"I can talk a good game and that's one of the reasons I was recalled," Moon said. "I wasn't there for my technical ability, but as long as I'm around very good players I still have a part to play. That's the wonder of a team game. Henry wanted me to do a job. I'm under no illusions. I know where Rob and I stand in the ability stakes. No one can presume to own the Welsh jersey. The day you expect to be selected is the day you fall. I just relish every opportunity."

As with the other quarter-finals - Munster versus Stade Français, Toulouse versus Montferrand and Northampton versus Wasps - Llanelli against Cardiff, described by Moon as the biggest club game ever played in Wales, has been a sell-out for months. During the World Cup, Llanelli put 60 points on a Cardiff side missing Howley et al. "They went away with their tail between their legs but this time they'll be galvanised," Moon said. "They have so many internationals they won't be fazed by Stradey. They've played in bigger and more hostile environments. Having said that it's wonderful for us to perform in front of the one-eyed Scarlets fans who know of no colour other than red."

Howley has been restricted to wearing the blue and black of Car-diff. "I was desperately disappointed to lose my Wales place and I'm trying to refocus. I have been training harder and I play every game to the best of my ability. Graham Henry explained that my passing from ruck and maul was not up to scratch and that I should go away and work on it. My aim is to come back fresher, but this match is not about me, it's about the team. I just wish the clubs had avoided each other."

Unlike Howley, Moon is not a full- time player. He's an educational consultant at the University of Glamorgan. "You're a long time retired in this game," he said. "You've got to keep your feet on the ground."

Wales take a development squad to Canada and North America in the summer, and their next full-metal- jacket skirmish is not until October, when Samoa return to the Millennium Stadium, the scene of their pool victory over Wales in the World Cup. "I'm not holding my breath," Moon said, "but I can probably say I'll be the Welsh scrum-half for the next six-and-a-half months."