There is, according to legend, a factory hidden deep in the Welsh valleys that manufactures brilliant young outside-halves almost as reliably as the pubs around the Millennium Stadium produce drunks after a glorious victory over the bloody English.
Apparently, there is a second workshop next door specialising in No 9s. On each of the last three Lions tours the Test shirt has been worn by a man hailing from west of the Severn, and two of them – Rob Howley, who played in the captivating series against the Wallabies in 2001, and Mike Phillips, who memorably roughed up the Springboks three years ago – are still involved with the national team. The third? Now, there's an interesting question.
Remember Dwayne Peel? How could we forget him? In the middle years of the last decade, he was the best scrum-half in Europe by a distance: good enough, indeed, to stand alongside the southern hemisphere masters – Fourie du Preez of South Africa and Agustin Pichot of Argentina, George Gregan of Australia and Justin Marshall of New Zealand – without looking ridiculously out of place. He was the very least of the Lions' problems when they were marmalised by the All Blacks in 2005 and, judging by the way he is currently playing for Sale, the Wales coach, Warren Gatland, could pick him for Six Nations duty at Twickenham next weekend without batting an eyelid, let alone reaching for the sleeping pills.
Yet if Phillips, the incumbent, and the exceptional 20-year-old understudy Lloyd Williams were to fall victim to some misfortune or other, Gatland would rather offer Gareth Edwards, five months shy of pensionable age, an unexpected chance to add to his 53 caps than summon Peel home from Greater Manchester. Was continuing international rejection at the heart of Peel's decision, made public last week, to sign a contract extension keeping him at Sale until the summer of 2014?
"The main reason I was happy to re-commit was the massive turnaround in mentality at the club," says the 30-year-old player from Carmarthen. "I think we needed that change of outlook and, since Steve Diamond took over as director of rugby midway through last season, it's been pretty obvious that there's something different going on in terms of attitude. Basically, we have a new squad here. More than that, it's a completely new environment. Everywhere you look, there's been an uplift.
"This is my fourth season and it has not always been easy. When Philippe Saint-Andrée signed me from Scarlets, the club had won a Premiership with a team of superstars. Inside three months, everything changed. Philippe said he was off back to France and a lot of players were sold. Suddenly, all the ambition was gone. That's what's been rekindled, from the top down. Steve can take a lot of credit for that.
"If I'm being honest, I might have gone back home if Scarlets had come to the table with an offer. That would have been a tough decision, because I've loved Llanelli rugby all my life and I'll never stop loving it. But it wasn't to be and, anyway, I'm more than happy to stay here. I love this club too and I'm very settled. When I look at my career as a professional player, I feel I've been fortunate. It's not everyone who gets to play all his rugby for clubs who do so much to make you feel welcome."
A man does not to be an analytical genius of Sigmund Freud proportions to work out that Peel is uncomfortable talking about the Wales issue. If truth be told, he would rather not discuss it at all – and with good reason, given the strange circumstances of his omission from the World Cup squad ahead of last year's tournament in New Zealand. The Welsh hierarchy said at the time that he was not considered because of injury and have stuck to their guns ever since. Sale? They insisted he was fully fit. As for Peel's friends, most notably the flanker Dafydd Jones, alongside whom he played at club and Test level after the two of them broke into senior rugby from the Scarlets academy, there were no punches pulled. "Dwayne is a quality player, he always will be and he could have been involved if they'd wanted him," Jones said last summer. "I think there's more to this than the Welsh public know. I also think Dwayne has been unfairly treated."
And the man himself? What is his take on it, six months on? A shake of the head confirms that he will not revisit the issue directly. He does, however, say the following: "Look, it's a difficult one. I'm not in the squad and I can't do much about it. Don't think for a second that I'm not bothered, because it will always bother me. I'm a proud Welshman, I've played 70-odd times for my country, I'd love to do it again and I think about it a lot.
"I get excited just watching the boys play – especially when they play the kind of rugby we're seeing at the moment, which really has an edge to it. International rugby is like a drug: no matter how often you experience it, you want more. It's just that now, post-World Cup, I'm more relaxed about the situation. I feel I can deal with it a little better than I have in the past. Success is important to any player and performing at Test level is a mark of success. But you have to enjoy yourself too, don't you? And I'm enjoying myself here at Sale, more than ever."
Seasoned Sale-watchers say this is obvious from Peel's body language. He has been hampered by shoulder problems for part of his career in England, but his contribution this term has been one of considerable value: of 14 Premiership games played so far, Peel has started a dozen and played at least 50 minutes in each. Whatever the club are paying him, they are getting their money's worth.
"One of the things that kept me here was the boldness of the vision," he says. "Sale have made a lot of the fact that this part of the country has fantastic potential as a union area and that they intend to harness it. We have a massive catchment area, with so much natural talent. Look at the back division England are putting out at the moment, most of them were born around here: Foden, Ashton, Strettle, Farrell, Hodgson. That tells you something.
"With Steve in place, I think we're in a good position to make the most of the advantages we have: the pool of players, the big-city environment. When I was offered the new contract, it dawned on me that this was a good time to stay put and be a part of what's going on. Steve takes pride in Sale, he understands the region and what it has to offer, he says what he thinks and he's enthusiastic. He's done wonders for my enthusiasm. When I look around me now, I think we can finish in the top six and qualify for next season's Heineken Cup."
That would put the cat among the pigeons: Exeter's march up the Premiership table threatens to put an unexpected squeeze on European qualification and if Sale make good on Peel's prediction, some very big hitters are likely to find themselves slumming it in the second-tier Amlin Challenge Cup come October. "We're flying under the radar: I don't think anyone thought Sale would perform the way we have, especially away from home. It will be more difficult next season because people will know more about us and be better prepared, but we'll be stronger too. We have Richie Gray coming down from Scotland. He's not bad, is he?"
Peel is not half-bad himself, no matter what Gatland and his colleagues on the Red Dragon coaching staff think. From Edwards and Brynmoor Williams and Terry Holmes to Robert Jones and Howley and Phillips, the Welsh have been blessed when it comes to No 9s. So blessed, perhaps, that they can afford to allow one of the best to wither on the vine. Just so long as they understand that the "chosen few" are so called for a reason.Reuse content