Hugh Godwin: Popham wins by a smile

Llanelli's fun boys ready to land a knockout blow for Wales
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The Independent Online

While the English and French bicker over the Heineken Cup, the Celts are luxuriating in the lighter side of life. "If you're not enjoying yourself, rugby becomes hard work," said Alix Popham, the No 8 whose Llanelli Scarlets side have laughed their way to the quarter-finals with a match to spare, and will earn a home draw if they beat London Irish in their final Pool Five fixture this afternoon.

Popham plays with bleach in his hair and a smile on his face, unless of course he is in the sin-bin, from whence he emerged last weekend to score a classic try in the extraordinary 35-11 thrashing of Ulster in Belfast. Taking control of a move that was petering out, he crabbed sideways from a ruck, looped around his openside flanker Gavin Thomas, and burst through to the line.

"The boys had worked so hard in the 10 minutes I was off so it was nice to get the points," said Popham, speaking en route to an Italian restaurant where the entire Scarlets squad were meeting up for a post-training meal. "We're like a youth team here, we all get along and there's great banter."

They have been making meatballs of quality teams across the continent this season, and playing with a try-scoring panache in successive European away wins over London Irish, Toulouse and Ulster, which is a searing tribute to their studious and likeable coach, Phil Davies.

This, remember, is the man who lost out to Gareth Jenkins in the race to be Wales's head honcho a few months ago. Now Davies, who had 10 years at Leeds - three of them with Popham in his team - has done what Jenkins failed to do in the past two seasons and get the Scarlets out of a Heineken Cup pool.

Popham, who is 27 and married with a young daughter, Holly, is too cute to draw too many conclusions from last summer's double regime change. One of Jenkins's last acts before leaving Stradey Park was to extend Popham's contract until 2009, with the silvery words: "I hope Alix gets the just rewards in Wales selection in the future... I have no doubt that he has a big international career ahead of him."

One of Jenkins's first acts in charge of Wales was to give Popham starts in the two tour Tests in Argentina, and there were two more appearances in the autumn against the Pacific Islanders and New Zealand; Popham, with 19 caps in all, is vying with the Ospreys' Ryan Jones to be Wales's No 8, and he commented with a smile: "I know the other person who plays eight can also play six."

Davies, a former Llanelli captain, was a fine Test lock and No 8 in his playing days. Critics currently are drooling over the Scarlets' tight five, who rival any team in the competition for their ability to keep the ball alive.

"The front five are ball-players and carriers," said Popham. "We work on a system where you get your stats on how many involvements you have in a game. Line-outs and scrums aren't included so they have got to get their stats up by carrying and tackling and assisting tackles."

This style - which does fine service to Llanelli's flamboyant history - creates the space and the opportunities for the Scarlets' Wales half-backs Dwayne Peel and Stephen Jones, and onwards to the likes of the canny New Zealander centre Regan King and emerging full-back Morgan Stoddart.

When Popham left his home-town club Newport for Leeds in September 2002 - he had previously spent six weeks with the Tykes on permit - it was because Gary Teichmann and Steve Ojomoh were keeping him on the bench.

There are no chuckles to be had in that one about the Welshman, the South African and the Englishman but Popham is in his pomp now, according to his No 8 predecessor for Scarlets and Wales, the iconic Scott Quinnell. "Alix suits the type of game the Scarlets are playing," said Quinnell. "They are giving the ball some air and sending as few bodies into the contact area as possible. Alix looks for the big hit and picks up the odd yellow card but that's a fact of life for any good back-row player. I'd rather he did that because it means he's playing on the edge."

There is more work yet before the Scarlets are on the edge of Wales' first European final since Cardiff in 1996. But their prospects off the field are brighter, too, with the Environment Agency withdrawing its objection to redeveloping Stradey Park for housing. This could kickstart the move to a new stadium out of town, a project that has attracted on to the Scarlets' board Tim Griffiths, the London-based chief executive of Williams Lea corporate printers. Griffiths, a West Walian, had previously offered a rumoured £1.5million to invest at London Welsh.

"Phil Davies keeps going on about controlling what you can control and not worrying about the rest," said Popham, whose parents Ian and Jackie "just liked the different spelling of Alix".

Anyway Popham, who signed for Scarlets in 2005, has a plan of his own. He would like to stay for another year after this contract, then finish with two seasons in France. He is also among a group of property owners in south Wales offering houses for rent during the 2010 Ryder Cup at Celtic Manor. "You have to have something else to occupy you," said Popham. "I don't want to finish rugby with my body in pieces, needing a hot bath every morning to get me going."

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