Peel latest in line of the Welsh tradition

Lions 2005: Llanelli's favourite son set to follow Howley, Holmes, Jones and Edwards in the famous red No 9 shirt
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The Independent Online

There may or may not be an outside-half factory tucked away in the valleys of Wales - some continue to believe in the existence of a production line; others believe Deadly Dai, King Barry, Phil the Sidestep and Jiffy the Genius were too divine to have been manufactured by mere humans - but when it comes to Lions scrum-halves, of whom Gareth Edwards was indisputably the greatest, there must be some heavy plant at work somewhere. The Welsh churn out No 9s on a scale bordering on the industrial, and might easily have contributed three to Sir Clive Woodward's current party.

There may or may not be an outside-half factory tucked away in the valleys of Wales - some continue to believe in the existence of a production line; others believe Deadly Dai, King Barry, Phil the Sidestep and Jiffy the Genius were too divine to have been manufactured by mere humans - but when it comes to Lions scrum-halves, of whom Gareth Edwards was indisputably the greatest, there must be some heavy plant at work somewhere. The Welsh churn out No 9s on a scale bordering on the industrial, and might easily have contributed three to Sir Clive Woodward's current party.

In the event, the powerful Michael Phillips of Llanelli failed to make the cut, even though his whole bearing suggested he was constructed with a tour of New Zealand specifically in mind. So the Welsh had to settle for just the two: Gareth Cooper, the low-slung scamperer from the Newport-Gwent Dragons, and his great rival for the Welsh international shirt, Dwayne Peel. A mere six days away from the start of the business end of this tour, it is Peel who holds the whip hand - not only over his countryman, but over the more experienced Matthew Dawson of England and the button-bright Chris Cusiter of Scotland.

It says something about the top-heavy internationalism of the modern game that at 23, Peel has 41 caps to his name. Had any of the Welsh nation's prewar Lions half-backs - Tommy Vile or Howard Poole, or the great Haydn Tanner - attempted to accumulate so many at so tender an age, they would have had to have been selected straight from primary school. Given that Peel has another decade left to him, it seems ludicrously premature to mention him in the same breath as Rex Willis, Allan Lewis or Brynmor Williams, let alone the real giants of the position: Terry Holmes, Robert Jones, Rob Howley and, last and foremost, Gareth the God.

Yet Peel's try-scoring performance in the opening fixture against Bay of Plenty in Rotorua was good enough to draw murmurs of approval from a New Zealand public reared on scrum-halves of the highest quality, and when he ripped an irreparable hole in the fabric of Wellington's defence last Wednesday night to create an important try for Gethin Jenkins, those murmurs grew louder. Much of his work during the Six Nations' Championship, from which Wales emerged with a first Grand Slam in more than a quarter of a century, had the stamp of brilliance about it. With the All Blacks beckoning, he seems perfectly capable of raising his game to yet another level.

To those in the know, Peel was the subject of hot gossip long before he played senior rugby for anyone. During his coaching spell at Saracens, the current Harlequins chief executive, Mark Evans, attempted to sign him on the strength of a single skills session. "We'd heard about him from people down in Wales and asked him up for a trial," Evans recalled. "His pass was enough for me, but we persuaded him to show us a box-kick anyway. It was perfect. I was just in the middle of making him an offer there and then when he said, 'Hang on, don't you want me to do it off my left foot too?' So he did, and it was perfect again. I can't say I was ecstatic when he turned us down to stay in Wales."

Peel has no regrets. "West is best," said the boy from Carmarthen, with a grin. "I grew up in the west, I'm steeped in its ways and I always wanted to play for Llanelli. I've been a Scarlets boy all my life. I'm not sure I ever wanted to join anyone else, to be honest with you."

And of course, Llanelli wanted him as much as he wanted them. Gareth Jenkins, the long-serving coach at Stradey Park and the unifying force behind the Scarlets, duly secured Peel's services and had no hesitation in giving him a first-team debut as a 17-year-old. A year or so later, Wales followed suit by playing him against Japan. The boy was on his way.

He is no bulldozer of a scrum-half, like Holmes or Edwards. Peel is one of the quicksilver breed, like Jones and Howley. Interestingly, he spends a good deal of time working with Jones, the Swansea half-back who played so well - and fought so well, if memory serves - in helping the Lions to their watershed victory over the Wallabies in 1989. Doesn't this make Jones something of a turncoat? After all, Llanelli and Swansea are, or at least were in the days before regionalisation, in "ne'er the twain shall meet" territory.

"I don't know about turncoat, but I'm glad he's around," Peel said. "He's been brilliant in spending time with me, in helping with my game management and tactical appreciation as well as improving my skills. I watched Rob as a kid and looked up to him, and it makes me proud to think I've made it on to a Lions tour, just as he did."

And New Zealand? How has he found the going thus far? "It's as physical as it comes, the rugby down here," he said. "But we're making progress, definitely. I think we stepped up our performance around the tackle area against Wellington, and while we've probably been guilty of failing to go through the phases as we would wish, I believe the continuity will come.

"It's a confidence thing as much as anything, as events proved with Wales in the Six Nations. We should have beaten South Africa and New Zealand in Cardiff last autumn, but came up just short in the psychology department. Once we came from well behind to beat France in Paris, though, things fell into place.

"We showed some real guts at Stade de France that day, and when you come out of a game like that with a result, it does wonders for your self-belief. We will need that kind of belief in the weeks ahead."

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