Red Dragon breathes fire of self-belief

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The Independent Online

Bloody Brisbane, of all cities on the face of the earth. There is no greater place of disaffection for Welsh rugby folk, no town more heavily populated by the demons of the past. It was here that Wales leaked 63 points to the Wallabies in 1991 and then forfeited whatever was left of their dignity by fighting among themselves over the after-match sandwiches; it was here they conceded 56 points during the dark days of 1996, when the politics of professionalism was paralysing the sport in the valleys. Not even the 1987 World Cup win over England at the Ballymore ground is recalled with fondness. "I'm trying to think of a worse game," said Alan Phillips this week, "but I can't."

Phillips played hooker that day; a tough little blighter from the Cardiff club, quick around the park and quick-tempered, too. He and his countrymen returned from the inaugural tournament in credit, having beaten Australia in a play-off for third place. But they knew in their souls they were off the pace, that David Kirk's astonishing All Blacks had set standards way above anything Wales could hope to achieve without a radical reorganisation at domestic level. England did reorganise, and prospered. The Welsh hesitated, and turned to stone. If ever there was a pyrrhic victory, it was won here, by the Red Dragonhood.

Sixteen years on, Phillips is back in Queensland as team manager and selector, preparing for another World Cup set-to with the English. And perhaps for the first time since returning from that first global competition, he senses the coming of a new dawn, as opposed to a false one. Last weekend's glorious assault on the All Blacks in Sydney, ultimately unsuccessful but no less uplifting for that, has much to do with this sudden appearance of a feel-good factor. But in Phillips' considered opinion, that is only the half of it.

"What did we gain from the performance against New Zealand? First and foremost, a huge amount of respect," he said. "If opponents respect you, they're thinking about you; I don't think England and the other big boys would have been lying awake worrying about us before they saw us score four tries against the All Blacks, but we'll be in their thoughts now. Of course, we face a very different challenge against the English, who to my mind have developed the perfect rugby machine - big, physical forwards playing alongside fast, physical backs. It is a very difficult game for us.

"But whatever we manage to take from this quarter-final, I'm looking beyond it. I hope Welsh rugby as a whole is looking beyond it. What excites me is the thought that we are at the start of something. International rugby has to be about the here and now to a large degree, but a good deal of our work has been geared towards the next World Cup in 2007. If we are building anything, we are building a side for that tournament.

"Because the regional structure is in place back home, we can now offer a good level of rugby to ambitious young players coming out of age-group competition and into the adult game. We all know that the system failed many of our talented youngsters over many years, that a lack of opportunity saw gifted people drift away from the sport. Now, these lads can learn the trade against hardened senior players at club level before challenging for a contract with one of the professional teams. What would you rather be doing at 20? Sitting on the replacements' bench for nine-tenths of the season, or picking up real experience against some tough old bugger down at Aberavon? No contest, in my view."

This impression of gathering momentum is shared by many of the sharper, more go-ahead spirits in the World Cup squad. Mark Jones, the highly articulate young wing from Llanelli who did more than most to help Wales deal with the swirling paranoia enveloping their pivotal pool game with Italy in Canberra fortnight ago, senses a greater assertiveness among his colleagues - a confidence rooted in the knowledge that the support structures have finally been professionalised with players, rather than committee men, in mind.

"I won age-group honours for Wales, and I know how many good players slipped through the net," he said. "Too much was left to chance. I got myself noticed by Gareth Jenkins [the respected Llanelli coach] because at 18, I made the decision off my own bat to leave my local club, Builth Wells, and play for Llandovery instead. I was lucky. Some people don't arrive at those decisions, or find themselves in a position to make them. Now that we have reorganised and put a long-term process in place, we can finally capitalise on our natural talent for playing this game. It's a matter of education as much as anything. By giving young players a clear idea of what they can achieve and how they can go about it, we'll make our rugby stronger."

Jones considers this group of Welsh players to be fitter and more physically resilient than any of their predecessors - something Phillips believes is central to his country's chances of challenging for honours in 2007. "You can have all the skill in the world, but it counts for sod-all if you don't have the muscle," said the manager. "Welsh players have always been smart when it comes to the footballing aspects of the game, but smart is no longer enough. The English have exposed our physical weaknesses for years now, so we spent the summer working on our power. We're getting there, and when we finally arrive, we can start concentrating on the things we do well naturally.

"There has been a change of attitude, I'm pleased to say. Wales is a small place; if you're a well-known rugby player, you can't hide. If you're seen in a pub or a club a couple of days before a game, people put two and two together and come up with some ridiculous number. You might only be drinking a Coke, but it won't matter. I'm not saying these blokes should be monks - Christ, we had no end of fun when I was playing, and rugby isn't a stay-at-home sort of game. But it is important that players wise up and understand the reality of their position. It hasn't always happened in Wales, but it's getting better."

The events of last weekend have accelerated the process, but the situation remains dangerously combustible. Had Wales lost to Italy, as they might easily have done had the Azzurri not been discriminated against by the fixture planners, the New Zealand match would have been so much dead meat. Similarly, a big English victory tomorrow would remove much of the gloss from the heroics in Sydney. Phillips understands the delicacy of the Welsh position better than most, but stands foursquare behind his own optimism.

"It's my way," he said. "I can't pretend there haven't been times down the years when I felt we had it so wrong there was no solution, when I told myself it would be easier to go back to hiring out cranes for a living. But the Welsh game is worth fighting for, and if people like me aren't prepared to fight, why should we expect someone else to do it?"

And off he went for a quiet coffee by the pool, in the 80-degree Queensland heat. Suddenly, Brisbane did not seem like hell on earth after all.