Powergen Cup Final: Outsider in the Welsh heartland

Llanelli's hallowed No 10 shirt is a Celtic totem - today it's worn by an American-Aussie
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The Independent Online

Take Jonny Wilkinson out of the equation, which seems to be obligatory, and it is apparent that at No 10 the drought season has converted a field of dreamers into something more prosaic. There are any number of artisans operating at stand-off in the professional game in Britain, but where have all the maestros gone? Overshadowed by huge back rows and blitz defences, every one.

Take Llanelli. This little pocket of West Wales was, to fly-half production, the Derby of Rolls-Royce. Slight, wiry but, for whatever reason, impeccably engineered men came off the conveyor belt to wear the red of Llanelli, Wales and the Lions and reduce flankers the world over to a state of insomnia.

Today the Scarlets tackle Wasps at Twickenham in the final of the Powergen Cup, and there is not a Welsh half-back to be seen. The slightly exotic Mike Hercus fills the evocative No 10 jersey for Llanelli and is partnered at scrum-half by Clive Stuart-Smith, not only an Englishman but one with a double-barrelled name, for crying out loud.

"I'm aware of the history of the club and the players that have gone before me," Hercus said. "It's an honour to follow in their footsteps, although I'm a long way off such hero status. I'm what can be described as a work in progress."

An interesting one, none the less. It was Hercus's late penalty that got Llanelli through a nail-biting semi-final against Bath at the Millennium Stadium and he is that rarest of rare creatures - an American professional. There are only five US Eagles on the planet who earn a living from rugby, so today they will be dancing in the streets of California. Or maybe Sydney.

Hercus, whose father was a marketing executive for Qantas, happened to be born in Virginia, and via brief stays in London and Athens was back "home" in Australia at the age of three. He played for Australian Schools, the Gordon Highlanders in Sydney and the Waratahs. He rubbed shoulders with the likes of Larkham, Latham and Little, and at 21 decided to explore the land of the free. He pitched up for a club called Belmont Shore in California and in his first game caught the eye of Tom Billups, the Eagles' head coach. Hercus had an American passport, and that same season in 2002 found himself making his Test debut, against Scotland in San Francisco.

"We scored a try after two minutes, I was heavily involved and I thought that international rugby was a breeze - 69 points later I was having second thoughts. Man it was ugly." He played against Scotland again in the 2003 World Cup and, in front of family and friends, acquitted himself well. The Eagles lost to Scotland and France but beat Japan and came within a conversion of beating Fiji, Hercus missing from the touchline.

"I speak like an Aussie so it's hard not to be one," he said, "but it doesn't mean I don't have pride in the USA. I love both countries and it's an incredibly huge honour to play for the Eagles. Itlaunched my career over here."

His performances in the World Cup - he is more of a runner than a kicker - persuaded Sale to sign him as cover for Charlie Hodgson. "It was very difficult to get consistent game-time," Hercus, who joined the Sharks at the beginning of 2004, said. When Sale got to the final of the Powergen Cup against Newcastle, Hercus saw Twickenham for the first time - from the bench. "I can say I warmed up there. I ran around the in-goal area."

So this season the Eagle-Wallaby flew-hopped from Manchester to Llanelli, who needed a fly-half after Stephen Jones opted to play in France. Hercus has been competing with Gareth Bowen for the No 10 spot, but Jones has decided to rejoin the Scarlets and will be back at the end of the season. "Can you believe it?" Hercus, who has another year on his Llanelli contract, said. "I'm back in the same situation I was in at Sale. It could turn very ugly for me."

Maybe, but today he has a pivotal role to play. Bowen was at stand-off when Llanelli beat Wasps in a Heineken Cup pool match at Stradey, and Hercus was again on the bench when the tables were turned in the return leg. "We got battered," Hercus said. "They can embarrass you. Twickenham is Wasps' second home, so it is going to be tough. The Celtic League is very different from the Premiership. We can play badly in Ireland and Scotland and then lift ourselves for the big games. It's as if we're two different teams. But we're a good cup side."

It is only in the past couple of months that Hercus has been able to develop a relationship with Stuart-Smith, who has taken over from the injured Dwayne Peel. "Playing week in, week out makes a world of difference. It gives you confidence." Hercus admits that initially he did not see eye to eye with the coach, Gareth Jenkins. "That was when he wasn't picking me. He's a great motivator and it's easy to see where the passion comes from. It's kind of cool listening to the Welsh language but it's difficult to understand. They speak at a million miles an hour."

Hercus is not the first Yank to swap the "Star Spangled Banner" for "Sospan Fach". Dave Hodges and Luke Gross had successful spells at Stradey. "If you sign an American you're taking a chance," Hercus said. "The feeling is, 'How can you possibly recruit somebody from a country that hardly plays rugby?' Because of Hodges and Gross, Llanelli were more inclined to take that gamble. Actually, it usually works out. Americans will give you 100 per cent because they are used to fighting for the right to play. They have to take every opportunity."

Come the end of the season and the 26-year-old Hercus, who has 28 caps, will be back on international duty. He flies to San Francisco for an Eagles training camp to prepare for the expanded Churchill Cup, which features England A, followed by World Cup qualifiers against Canada and Barbados. "Sydney, San Francisco, Manchester and... Llanelli. They kind of group together naturally in the same sentence, don't you think?"

THE GREAT TRADITION: SCARLET STAND-OFFS

BARRY JOHN

Arguably the most gifted fly-half of the lot and revered from Cefneithin, where he was born, to Cape Town to Canterbury in New Zealand, where he helped the Lions to a historic series triumph over the All Blacks in 1971. The King abdicated at the age of 27.

PHIL BENNETT

John was the George Best of rugby, so who could succeed him? Another side-stepping genius from Llanelli. In 1974 Bennett was a key figure in the Lions' invincible tour of South Africa, and four years later he crowned the golden age of Welsh rugby with a Grand Slam.

JONATHAN DAVIES

Another classic marque from the fly-half factory, Davies swashed his buckle through the amateur game to the professional and was a success both in union (the only thing he missed was the Lions) and league. One of the few to master both codes.

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