Humphreys hones his rage for a last hurrah

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Back home in Red Dragon country he was nicknamed "Off-side", but he is not quite quick enough to get off-side these days. As he is not sufficiently mobile to get on-side either, he operates in a peculiar No Man's Land of his own. He rarely plays a full 80 minutes - "I always give the coaches my special glare when they substitute me, but I can't really argue with their logic" - and after a Saturday match, he is unable to train until the following Wednesday. He is on his last legs, for sure, but of all the Welsh sportsmen who rage against the dying of the light in the spirit of Dylan Thomas, none rage more angrily than Jonathan Humphreys.

Back home in Red Dragon country he was nicknamed "Off-side", but he is not quite quick enough to get off-side these days. As he is not sufficiently mobile to get on-side either, he operates in a peculiar No Man's Land of his own. He rarely plays a full 80 minutes - "I always give the coaches my special glare when they substitute me, but I can't really argue with their logic" - and after a Saturday match, he is unable to train until the following Wednesday. He is on his last legs, for sure, but of all the Welsh sportsmen who rage against the dying of the light in the spirit of Dylan Thomas, none rage more angrily than Jonathan Humphreys.

What is more, his raging is of inestimable value to Bath, whom he joined from Cardiff two seasons ago and leads at Twickenham this evening in the Premiership Grand Final, where victory will earn the Recreation Grounders a first national title since 1996 and prevent Wasps, the newly-crowned champions of Europe, completing the double of their dreams. Humphreys may be 35, but he brings three-and-half decades' worth of ingrained bloody-mindedness to the West Country mix - a bloody-mindedness not witnessed in these parts since the days of Chilcott, Dawe and Robinson.

Humphreys captained his country as long ago as 1995 - against Francois Pienaar's Springboks at Ellis Park in Johannesburg, on his third Test appearance - and was at it again as recently as last year, when his form for Bath persuaded the management to summon him from international retirement and hand him the reins for a Six Nations match against England at the Millennium Stadium. And still there is no getting rid of him. A few weeks ago he agreed a single-season extension to his club contract, a decision that will allow him one last shot at his favourite tournament, the Heineken Cup. Like The Archers, Bruce Forsythe and the poor, Humphs the hooker is forever with us.

Why continue, for heaven's sake? Why drag an ailing body through this weekly torment? His direct opponent today will be Trevor Leota, a uniquely physical force of rugby nature whose idea of fun is no laughing matter. There must be easier ways of paying the bills, surely? "These two years with Bath have been an unbelievable experience," Humphreys replied. "I've learned more here than in the 13 years I spent with Cardiff." Which led him neatly on to the subject of Welsh rugby, about which he holds views that might reasonably be described as trenchant. While the prospect of a major final with Bath, against the most pitiless tacklers in the northern hemisphere, was quite enough to be going on with, he was more than happy to protest at the shenanigans on the far side of the Severn Bridge, where the successful Celtic Warriors regional team are fast sinking into the quicksand of sporting politics. Humphreys always suspected five regions was one too many, but he detests the manner in which this latest piece of economising has been conducted.

"My heart goes out to those players," he said. "To be treated as they've been treated... it's so demeaning. I thought right from the beginning that a four-region system would be favourite; if things went well, they could easily have expanded to five. But the Warriors were put in place and they performed above expectations - they beat Wasps at High Wycombe, for starters. It's terrible to think that those blokes were herded into a room and told to sit there while people from the other regions ran their eye over them and decided who they wanted for next season. Talk about a bloody cattle market."

While he continues to call Cardiff home, Humphreys is well out of the Welsh club scene. He had planned to pack in completely two summers ago when Michael Foley, the former Wallaby hooker and a front-row rival of long standing, rang him out of the blue with the offer of gainful employment. Foley had endured a difficult few weeks in the Premiership as Jon Callard's coaching successor and wanted to beef things up a little for the coming campaign. In short, he wanted an old head - a head as old as his own, but still active on the playing front.

"Michael and I went back a long way; we'd first played against each other in a match between Cardiff and Queensland and we'd both been coached by Alec Evans, who worked with Wales in the mid-1990s and is someone I'm proud to count among my dearest friends. It seems Alec saw me as Michael's equivalent in Wales and recommended me to him. I was certainly close to calling it a day when he phoned, but the chance of playing Premiership rugby in a place like Bath, where the game means so much to the community, got me thinking.

"What did I bring to Bath? Experience, I suppose. When I arrived, it was obvious to me that the club had bags of talent, but little in the way of core leadership. What did Bath offer me? The opportunity to play the most intense club rugby of my career, week-in and week-out. There is no doubt in my mind that England won the World Cup on the back of the Premiership. When I had that final little flurry of international rugby last year, the step up from Bath really wasn't that great. Had I been called back in from club rugby in Wales, I'm not sure I'd have coped. The jump would have been too great. When I played for Cardiff, the really hard games against the Llanellis and Swanseas didn't come around too often. English rugby is nothing but hard."

Yet for all the arduous, backbreaking rigour of his current situation, Humphreys handles himself admirably. The Bath forwards have not taken a step backwards all season and their line-out, triggered by the Welshman's pinpoint throwing, has set the standard. At the start of the campaign, the Harlequins coach, Mark Evans, identified Leicester's line-out as the classiest act in the Premiership. He now routinely describes Bath's as a "Rolls-Royce" operation. If the West Countrymen relieve London's finest of their domestic title today, the umbilical link between Humphreys and his jumpers - Danny Grewcock, Steve Borthwick and Andy Beattie - will have an awful lot to do with it.

Of course, the challengers will have to do a whole lot more than win their own line-outs and pinch the odd ball against the throw. They will have to fight fire with fire by cheating effectively at the breakdown - this particular aspect of the game holds few mysteries for the Bath captain - and find a means of neutralising the threat posed by Rob Howley, who won the Heineken Cup for Wasps last weekend with a feat of cunning way beyond anything Humphreys, crafty as he is, could hope to match.

"Jammy little git," muttered the hooker, in respect of Howley's decisive smash-and-grab raid against Toulouse. "Actually, I can't in all conscience describe him as lucky, because he scored tries exactly like that when we were together at Cardiff." Like Humphreys, Howley is no longer available for his national team; like Humphreys, his form in England has been revelatory. The two men stood alongside each other on scores of occasions for Cardiff and Wales; this evening, clad in the armour of opposition, they will share warm smiles of recognition and respect before putting their friendship to one side.

"I don't suppose Rob envisaged us meeting up like this when he first crossed the bridge - I know I didn't," Humphreys admitted. "But all this season, we've seen this game coming. Rod predicted months ago that we'd be up against each other in the final, and I had an equally strong feeling about it. It was as if we knew this would happen, right from the early Premiership matches back in September."

Both men have a season left to them; Howley, a couple of years younger than his countryman, may plough on for a further 12 months if the surgery he is awaiting on his fractured wrist does the trick and he makes the cut for the 2005 Lions tour of New Zealand. But those are big "ifs". Humphreys is treating today's final as the culmination of a brief, wonderfully fulfilling sojourn among the bloody English, and will honour it with his last bead of sweat. It will be surprising indeed if Howley does not give something similar of himself.

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