Made in Wales, made for Wales

Jenkins, the guiding hand of Llanelli, awaits the call to plan the rebirth of his nation
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The Independent Online

David Moffett, the chief executive of the Welsh Rugby Union, says he wants a Welshman to coach the national side next year after Steve Hansen returns to New Zealand following the Six Nations. At least it would make a refreshing change to have somebody in charge who actually knew the words to the Welsh national anthem.

Although he doesn't speak the language, they don't come much more Welsh than Gareth Jenkins. He left school in Llanelli at 15 and walked through the gates of Stradey Park to captain the schoolboy team. Thirty-five years on, Jenkins has the chance of walking out of the gates clutching the key to the Principality.

The WRU are advertising for Hansen's successor. "The ultimate criterion is simple,'' said Steve Lewis, the general manager. "We want the best man possible to coach Wales.'' And implement a strategy for the 2007 World Cup. The closing date for applications is 16 January, shortly after which a five-man selection panel, including Moffett and Lewis, will announce the name of the successful candidate. Jenkins has not yet forwarded his CV, but he will.

"No coach in Wales wouldn't want that job,'' Jenkins said, "but not at all costs. The circumstances have to be right, and if they were I'd be delighted to do it. The interview process is critical, for everybody should have their own ideas when it comes to negotiating the position of national coach. The person appointed not only needs to suit the WRU but has to be comfortable in himself.''

Jenkins, who has his own criteria, would appear to be the main man, not only because he has coached Llanelli, regularly the most successful side in Wales, for 20 years but also for his international experience. When Wales were at the height of crisis management in the notorious Nineties, they went through six coaches. Alan Davies, who was appointed less than 10 weeks before the 1991 World Cup, employed Jenkins as his assistant and forwards coach.

Wales were knocked out in the group stages but won the Five Nations' Championship in 1994 and the wooden spoon the following season. Davies's record was played 35, won 18, lost 17. Two months before the 1995 World Cup, Davies and Jenkins were invited to jump rather than be pushed.

"It was a set-up,'' Jenkins said. "Alan had a difficult relationship with Vernon Pugh [then chairman of the WRU] and I saw it coming. There were a lot of regrets, but the experience allowed me to become more rounded and realistic. It was a political stage, not a coaching stage. It was unacceptable because then they brought in Alex Evans and it was a disaster.'' Evans, an Australian, was the WRU's first overseas appointment and Wales made another swift exit from the World Cup.

Graham Henry was recruited from New Zealand in 1998, and when he resigned in 2002, Hansen, his assistant, was promoted. With Henry now coaching the All Blacks, Hansen is expected to become his No 2 when he returns home.

"Henry didn't affect anything except the national team,'' Jenkins said. "It was very disappointing. I thought he'd do more for us as a nation. We really needed developing but he never embraced that. By comparison, Hansen was a breath of fresh air. He entered into dia-logue, shared ideas and kept in contact.''

And Moffett? "Apart from one meeting I've never seen him. As a chief executive I thought he'd have taken in the big picture. I'd like to have seen him, particularly to talk to him, but I've never had the chance. He locks himself away.''

If Jenkins becomes the Wales coach he and Henry will go head-to-head when the All Blacks visit Wales in November. They have something in common - both are disciples of the late Carwyn James.

When James coached the Lions to brilliant effect in New Zealand in 1971, Henry was a hugely impressed observer. Jenkins' relationship with James was much closer. In 1972, when the All Blacks toured Britain and Ireland, James coached Llanelli to a famous victory. The tiny black-and-white scoreboard at Stradey read: Llanelli 9, Seland Newydd 3. Jenkins was in the back row.

"At 2.15 we went out to have our picture taken and I couldn't believe it. I'd never seen so many people. It was a grey and dirty day but the atmosphere was immense. Something special was happening and I didn't know what the hell it was. It was a very emotional day. Carwyn didn't want to dominate the occasion, he wanted the players to take ownership. He told us to grasp the moment. He was my greatest coaching influence and I still aspire to his qualities. He spent most of his professional life in West Wales and it became a part of him. He understood us and made the team belong to a cause.

"We always had something to prove and there was also an emotional depth. It was bigger than a game of rugby on a Saturday afternoon. He made you feel valued and he challenged you, not with 'this is how you do it' but by making you understand your responsibilities. As a tactician he was outstanding. His success wasn't an accident. There is a particular mentality at work here and he tapped into it. You can't compare Llanelli with Cardiff or Newport. Combining quality and ability and working within a coaching system adds to the whole thing.'' The Scarlets, one of the five new regional sides, but with familiar old faces in the boot room, have never lost the ethos.

In common with most people, Jenkins was impressed with Wales's seven-try uprising against New Zealand and England in the World Cup. "Getting to the quarter-finals was their ambition, and then they felt less pressure. They threw caution to the wind and proved they can be massively creative and effective. We've tried to copy New Zealand rugby for five years and the players have never been quite comfortable with it. A lot of them in the World Cup hadn't been coached as much in that style and they showed we can produce something else with natural qualities.

"Had a couple of incidents gone the other way Wales could have beaten England and shocked the world. We made them look vulnerable defensively and put them under huge pressure. To be fair to England, they held on with the help of some serious experience. They have demonstrated they are the best in the world. They didn't play their greatest rugby, but winning the World Cup was their reward not just for what they did in Australia but over the last two years.

"They also proved that the northern- hemisphere mentality in maintaining forward power deserved to prevail over the southern hemisphere, who have devalued the forward game and fallen victim to the Super-12 approach.''

Jenkins is priming the Scarlets for another assault on the Heineken Cup, in which they were beaten in the semi-finals by Northampton, 31-28, in 2000 and again by Leicester, 13-12, in 2002. "What makes it so good is that it's a measure of the best team in Europe but there are never outright favourites.''

On form and experience, Jenkins has to be favourite for the biggest job in Wales. He would only have to switch from one set of red jerseys to another.