Shanklin the Welsh linchpin

Spectacular revival owes as much to the skills of the unsung centre as the flights of the fantasists
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The Independent Online

Cardiff is currently plastered with huge rugby posters, and the player given centre stage in the red of Wales is not the new icon Gavin Henson or the dashing wing Shane Williams but the unsung Tom Shanklin. Why choose an Osprey when you can have a common-or-garden bird?

Shanklin is not immediately recognisable. In fact, the poster campaign has come slightly unstuck, because most people in the Principality think the man with chest expanded and wearing the expression of a nightclub bouncer in Tiger Bay is Gareth Thomas. Thomas - he misses today's match with Scotland at Murrayfield because of a broken thumb - and Shanklin could pass as brothers. Identical height, similar weight and both follicly challenged.

When Shanklin partners Henson in the centre for Wales there is no danger of mistaken identity. "Gavin's got the designer hair and stubble, the shaved legs, the brown skin and the silver boots, and then there's me," Shanklin said with a smile.

So, does he enjoy playing alongside the man who would be king, the man who, it is claimed, is singing from the same hymn-sheet as Charlotte Church? "Very much. It helps to have class around you," he said. "Gavin may look pretty but he can put it about when he wants to, as he showed against England.

"He's a big lump and he's not afraid to get himself dirty. He's got all the kicking skills and he puts in the big tackles. When he first came in he was very young and needed time to settle. In terms of training and diet, he's one of the most professional in the squad."

After Henson's late penalty gave Wales an 11-9 victory over England that put them on course for a memorable Six Nations - following Scotland, they host Ireland in the climax in Cardiff on Saturday - Shanklin and Stephen Jones had their jerseys stolen. The Welsh Rugby Union appealed for their return on compassionate grounds. The jerseys, they said, were the players' only keepsake of a famous victory. Three weeks later the shirts, Nos 10 and 13, were posted to Wales' HQ from an anonymous sender, who paid the £3.45 postage. Would they have returned Gavin's jersey?

Shanklin may not be the most glamorous figure in a flamboyant Welsh threequarter line, but even Henson and his winged boots are going to have to fly to match his try-scoring record. With 31 caps have come 15 tries, eight of them in the autumn series, and only Shane Williams has scored more.

"It's not too bad," Shanklin said, "but to my mind I've been a bit too quiet in this Six Nations. I know what I can do and I'd like to impose myself a bit more. In the autumn I couldn't get enough of the ball, and things went my way.

Shanklin, with typical modesty, describes himself as a support player. If so, he's one of the best. His staccato Test career has been split between centre and wing, and his current run follows Iestyn Harris's return to league and an injury to Sonny Parker.

The injury to Thomas means that Wales, with Kevin Morgan at full-back and Shane and Rhys Williams on the wings, will field a small but very fast back-three. "Because we were taller, Gareth and I tended to be used as battering rams or dummy runners," Shanklin said. "Players would stop for us and that would create space for the others. I'm hoping for a more direct role against Scotland."

Shanklin marked his debut, against Japan in Osaka in 2001, with two tries, and most of his team-mates today were on that tour. "We're experienced enough now to perform to a high level. Beating England gave everybody a lot of satisfaction, and the win over France was a bit special. We're more confident, more skilful and we're not afraid to throw the ball around. If there's a set-back we don't need to panic. What happened in France showed us that."

Shanklin was born in Harrow and at eight moved to Tenby, the home town of his father, Jim, a centre for London Welsh and Wales in the glory years. Tom, who studied sports science at Brunel University, played at Old Deer Park under Clive Griffiths, who is now Wales's defence coach, before joining Saracens as an apprentice on £10,000 a year. He spent five seasons at the north London club, surviving a couple of injuries that sent his health insurance through the roof.

"In my first season I tore a muscle in my right leg. It would heal and then I'd tear it again, and it was such a repetitive process I thought they'd get rid of me. The following year I landed on a boot while making a tackle and thought I'd bruised a calf. It got so bad I couldn't walk.

"I had a scan and it showed a burst vein. I was rushed to the Princess Grace Hospital. They stuck pins in my leg and I couldn't feel a thing; my calf had filled with blood and there was nowhere for it to go. There was the possibility of gangrene, and I had three operations in a week."

Shanklin almost turns a whiter shade of pale at the memory of it all. A couple of seasons ago he moved from Saracens to Cardiff, from one underperforming club to another. Father Jim, an honorary member at London Welsh, will not be in Edinburgh, although it seems that almost every other Welshman will. "He gets more nervous than me," Tom said. "He'll watch it on the box."

The press release announc-ing the Wales team came with an additional sheet of information: "Wales disasters in Scotland". And there they were, a sorry catalogue of failures from 1899 to 1999 which seems to illustrate that Murrayfield is a Red Dragon graveyard.

"Many Welsh sides have travelled to Scotland with high hopes and come home empty-handed," Mike Ruddock, the coach, said. "We will need to be right at the top of our performance if we are to ensure the same doesn't happen to us. Having said that, I expect the team to play with the same confident and bold approach that we have seen throughout the championship."