Shanklin enjoys a midfield marriage of utmost convenience
When Wales' centres of excellence run out together, the Red Dragonhood breathes fire. James Corrigan meets the man who will play outside Gavin Henson this evening
Saturday 15 March 2008
Unlike his other half in the Wales midfield, Tom Shanklin is not a man for the stats. If it would be apt to clad the obsessive analyst that is Gavin Henson in an anorak (designer, obviously), then Shanklin would be more suited to a hoodie, such is his propensity to focus purely on the here and now and never, ever to fret about maths. But even he was impressed with a number thrown at him on Thursday.
"Crikey, that's a bloody good stat, isn't it?" said Shanklin, when informed that he and Henson have started 11 times together for Wales at inside and outside centre, and that Wales have not been beaten in a single one of those matches. "I didn't know that. That's incredible. Does Gav know?"
It must be assumed that Gav would indeed have known, for Gav knew about his own 100 per cent record way before anyone else did. While this week has been monopolised by all the talk of Henson going for his 10th success out of 10 Six Nations starts, what has perhaps been lost in the clamour is the contribution of the powerhouse who operates on his outside shoulder. Wales and the rugby world will soon come to realise – or damn well should do – that Henson without Shanklin is like Toshack without Keegan, O'Driscoll without D'Arcy, Max Boyce without his leek. The duo are simply meant to be, as a quick scan down their roll of international honour will confirm.
The only times they have played together as Nos 12 and 13 against sides that could be described as "minnows" were in their first two outings, against Romania and Japan in 2004. Otherwise the opposition has been Six Nations or southern hemisphere. As Shanklin said that is indeed "incredible", when you consider that in this four-year period Wales have lost 20 of their 44 internationals. A pure coincidence? Yeah, right. And Wales' improvement under Warren Gatland is a pure coincidence as well, then.
"The thing about playing with Gav is that there is either space around him or outside him," said Shanklin, in between preparations for today's showdown against France. "The more I play with him the better I feel with him. His error count is remarkably low and that's why he's so great to play alongside. He doesn't miss many tackles and doesn't lose the ball very often. You know in 2005, when I suppose our partnership really got going, he'd just come on the scene, but now he's a bit more experienced. There is a certain maturity there now. The older he's got the more mature he's got, as a player and as a professional."
In contrast, Shanklin is largely the same player and professional he was back then, which is some feat in itself. On the Lions tour following Wales' 2005 Grand Slam, Shanklin suffered a knee injury that threatened not only to end his career but also his ability to walk properly. "I don't think about that now, I'm not that sort of person," said the 28-year-old, who had almost lost the same right leg due to a blood clot three years previously. "Deal with it and get on with it." It is a motto that served him well as he dumbfounded the doubters in returning to peak form. "I always believed I'd get back here," he said. "Just had to do the same things I always did."
This involved a few things, but mainly hard work. There were also the pancakes which have long assisted him in that nervous countdown before an international. "It's funny, I first copied it off Martyn Williams [the Wales flanker] who copied it off Scott Quinnell [the former No 8]," he explained. "It's not like we don't have a proper meal and are all lardy or anything. It's just that about three hours before kick-off I have a pancake topped with honey. It gives you a sugar rush and as I can't really eat much before the game it helps with the energy levels. Saying that, I'm not sure if it makes a difference or not. It's just a habit I've gotten into. It's not a bad one, is it?"
Well, Arsène Wenger and the other nutrition junkies might not approve but there you go; lemon-suckers the lot of them. What works for Shanklin undoubtedly works for Wales, who have seemed that much more potent since he came on to the field during the second-half against England. "Yeah, I was disappointed not to start that game," said the player who won his 50th cap against Italy in the match before last, scoring a crucial interception try in the process. "But the main reason was the blitz defence system we're using. I wasn't used to it like all the Ospreys boys. It was something I worked on and got better at. Shaun Edwards really helped in that regard."
Ah, Edwards, the fiery little defence coach whom Shanklin accused of "shouting in our faces" in his column on the BBC website. Shanklin laughs when I mention it. "If it's possible to be taken out of context on your own blog, that's what happened," he said. "No, he doesn't shout in your face. But the way he coaches is very direct and if you make a mistake then he wants to know why. But the manner [in which] he gets his point across is brilliant. People react to it. And you don't want to make the same mistake again."
Shanklin is certain that the days of Wales making the same mistakes again are, blessedly, at an end. As he reflects back on a campaign three years ago after which the Red Dragonhood had apparently taken giant strides up the pecking order of world rugby, he outlines why they marched right back down the hill with such frightening haste. "You do get peaks and troughs in sport, but probably not that pronounced," he said. "It's the level of consistency we need. Regardless of what happens this weekend, we've had a successful Championship and what we can't do is let our standards slip. We've been guilty of that as players and coaches in the past. I think the professionalism we have now in the squad together with the work ethic ... well, I can't see it happening again. You can't imagine Gatland and Edwards letting anything slip, can you? And that's what they're drubbing into us."
But it has not all been "stand by your beds" with Officer Gatland and Sergeant Major Edwards. "There's really good banter and maybe that's also been lacking a bit," Shanklin said. "Now it's come back. Like we've been together for seven weeks, living in each other's pockets, and that could have its obvious drawbacks. That's why it's been so good this time around with the social things we've been trying to do. All week we've been playing board games and it's been really good. Last night we played Family Fortunes; there was five against five and it was great fun; it is great fun. The reason for that is that when you're winning, you enjoy the game, you enjoy the training and you enjoy the downtime. Nobody should underestimate the power of winning."
Nor, Shanklin believes, should anyone discount the benefit of previous experience. "We've been there and know we can do it and even if the memories of the 2005 Grand Slam don't give us any advantage – and I think it has to – it's good to know we've beaten England and Ireland both away this season. What I recall most vividly about that afternoon in 2005 is on the coach on the way in and seeing all those crowds, all that red. I watched a video afterwards of all those thousands stood outside the City Hall watching the game on the big screen. Incredible.
"And then I remember the last five minutes and the relief when the whistle went. You know, it was difficult to get our heads around it at the time, as Wales hadn't won a Grand Slam in 27 years or something. It was weird. It's sunk in now, sure, but enjoying it at the moment was not as easy as people would think as when you're in the middle of it, you don't really understand it. To do it again now would be especially good as we could probably take it all in at the time."
Shanklin is not counting his poulets, however, as he is only too aware of the threat posed by France. Yet neither will he be counting the points difference either. "I just want to win another Grand Slam," he said, showing his disdain for calculators. "We are on the verge of something special and it is in our hands."
His parents will be present – his father, Jim, played four times for Wales in the 1970s – and Jane. "He'll be very quiet and serious, my mum'll be going mad," said Shanklin. Like Gav and Shanks, that is probably the ideal partnership on an evening such as this.
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