Humphreys fired up to seek revenge

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The Independent Online

What single image could be said to define the first five-and-a-bit seasons of Continental club rugby? Paul Grayson kicking goals from everywhere, perhaps, or Christophe Lamaison missing them from almost as many places? Thomas Castaignÿde, the cocksure D'Artagnan with a swordsman's eye for an opening, running opponents twice his size into the ground? Bob Dwyer, bereft and bewildered, unable to fathom how his fine Leicester side had been swept away on a wave of Brive brilliance? A sea of Ulstermen whooping it up in the centre of Dublin in a frenzy of cross-community celebration?

What single image could be said to define the first five-and-a-bit seasons of Continental club rugby? Paul Grayson kicking goals from everywhere, perhaps, or Christophe Lamaison missing them from almost as many places? Thomas Castaignÿde, the cocksure D'Artagnan with a swordsman's eye for an opening, running opponents twice his size into the ground? Bob Dwyer, bereft and bewildered, unable to fathom how his fine Leicester side had been swept away on a wave of Brive brilliance? A sea of Ulstermen whooping it up in the centre of Dublin in a frenzy of cross-community celebration?

Then again, it is possible to see the whole of the Heineken Cup in the rocky outcrop that passes for the face of Jonathan Humphreys, the Cardiff hooker and former captain of Wales. Cardiff, one of the 12 originals who pitched up for the inaugural, English-free tournament in 1995-96, have played a total of 26 European games since flying blind into Bordeaux for the opening tie of a then experimental competition. Remarkably, given the physical demands of his position at the sharpest point of the sharp end, Humphreys has been involved in all of them. He may not have reached the final whistle every time - he failed to go the distance in Brive almost four years ago for the very good reason that he was sent off - but that unpalatable little factoid does not detract from his achievement.

This evening, Humphreys' club career comes full circle when Cardiff take on Toulouse in a must-win contest at the Arms Park. The two clubs met in the first final - the match was played next door, at the old national stadium - and the Frenchmen sneaked home in the dying seconds of extra time. "Some match, that one; it gave me an overwhelming appetite for European rugby," says Humphreys, who continues to feed his front-rower's visage with relish.

"To lose a showpiece game in those circumstances... well, it was hard to bear. When the ref realised just how close it all was, he should have blown up and said: 'Just share the bloody thing.' Still, that's in the past. We can have another crack at them now, can't we?"

Humphreys' public image rests on two closely linked impressions: that he plays with his heart emblazoned on his sleeve, and that he gives away penalties in numbers that would make a microchip lose count. The first is undeniably true: Humphreys is right up there in the Keith Wood class when it comes to baring his very soul on the pitch. It was for precisely this reason that Alex Evans, the wily old Australian who coached Wales during the dark depression of the mid-1990s, awarded him the national captaincy; Humphreys had won only two caps when he led his country against the then world champions, South Africa, in Johannesburg in September 1995, but Evans rightly figured that the Red Dragon needed some fire in its belly.

But what of the second, more accusatory notion of Humphreys' modus operandi? A new rugby fanzine was recently launched in Wales under the title Offside Humphreys. Is he really that indisciplined? "I blame the commentators," he grins. "The statistics show that I give away one, perhaps two, penalties a game - nothing to get excited about. But because it's me, it always gets mentioned: 'There goes Humphreys again,' that sort of thing.

"I picked up this reputation when I was captain of Wales and I suppose there was a bit of the red mist about me at that time. We weren't going well as a Test team, we were taking a lot of flak and I took it all on my own shoulders; certainly, there was a stage when I'd do anything to stop a try being scored against us. Looking back, it's amazing what mental tricks you can play on yourself when you're under pressure.

"But then again, I make no apologies for being a spirited sort. And I'll tell you this for nothing: Cardiff has always been a spirited club. People in Wales think of us as city slickers, a group of fancy prima donnas sipping Pimms in the bar. They are so wrong it's unbelievable. Is Dan Baugh a city slicker? What about Martyn Williams and Neil Jenkins and Dai Young? Come off it. Half the players in this team are from the Valleys. The nearest thing we have to a Fancy Dan is Nick Walne, and he's from Scunthorpe. The reality at Cardiff is that you have to be a better player than everyone else, simply because your opponents always perform 20 per cent above themselves. I've never played for another club so I don't know for sure, but I very much doubt if I'd find more spirit elsewhere."

How they need to tap into that spirit today. As the most successful exponents of Heineken Cup rugby in their respective countries, both Cardiff and Toulouse were seriously deflated by their defeats in last weekend's opening group matches, and while Pool Three is probably tight enough to allow prospective quarter-finalists two defeats, the significance of tonight's floodlit scrap is too obvious for words. The continuing administrative hanky-panky surrounding Cardiff's new front-row recruit, Peter Rogers, means that Humphreys knows rather more about the players he will face today than about those he will be fighting alongside. The uncertainty is not a distraction, though.

"Whoever plays in the Cardiff front row will understand the situation, which is simply this: unless we get parity with Toulouse at the set-piece, we won't even be in the ball game. If we don't scrummage, we can forget it. If we let these French blokes clamber all over us and dictate the match, it will be "ooh la la" and good night. I've never seen a French side without a potentially dominant scrum and a fantastic driving line-out. That's the real tradition of their rugby, and Toulouse embody that tradition more than most.

"I played against Christian Califano in the first final; he was in there with the big tight head with the curly hair (Claude Portolan was the man in question) and that hooker of theirs, Patrick Soula, who really was a bit of fun. And what do you know, Califano is still going strong. I have massive respect for the Toulouse club and it's that respect that makes me want to throw everything at them in this game. I'm not in the first flush of youth (Humphreys turned 30 this year) but I'm happy to keep playing as long as I feel I can compete. The moment I find myself shying away from situations is the moment I pack it in, but I always promised myself that I'd finish my career as first-choice hooker for Wales and that remains my target."

With two seasons left on his Cardiff contract, Humphreys may well achieve his heart's desire; he is, on his day, the most formidable hooker in the principality, and the acute Welsh shortage of heavyweight lock forwards might easily persuade Graham Henry, the national coach, to pick his biggest, most belligerent front row for the run of Tests stretching between November and April. Henry will make that decision on the evidence of the next three weeks of Heineken Cup rugby - a competition that is Humphreys' own domain, in so far as it belongs to anyone. With his record of durability, who will bet against him?

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