Taylor remade to play the leading man

Swansea's midfield maestro is now ready to conduct
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The Independent Online

Swansea's battling win over Stade Français last week has spawned a new tactic. "We're considering starting with 14 men and only going to 15 if things get rough," explains their outside centre, Mark Taylor.

Swansea's battling win over Stade Français last week has spawned a new tactic. "We're considering starting with 14 men and only going to 15 if things get rough," explains their outside centre, Mark Taylor.

It's said with a smile, of course, and the main reason for the lack of grumbles on The Mumbles is that after today's trip to L'Aquila, and the return fixture on Saturday, Swansea should be sitting pretty on top of Heineken Cup Pool Two. The Whites not only survived being a man short for more than half of the 18-16 win over the French champions - the Wales forwards Colin Charvis and Garin Jenkins will sit out the twin Italian jobs for their misdemeanours - but prospered with a performance in which the midfield three of Arwel Thomas, Scott Gibbs and Taylor showed all their individual and collective strengths.

Taylor in particular can afford to wear a grin as wide as Swansea Bay. The Gwent-born 27-year-old has survived Wales' lowest point, the 96-13 humiliation in South Africa three summers ago, to be selected for 18 of the 21 Tests played since that dark day in Pretoria. Taylor was voted player of the year by the Welsh rugby writers last season and is a leading candidate to captain the national side in next month's internationals against Samoa, the United States and South Africa, having auditioned for the role in the non-cap match against the French Barbarians earlier this year.

The incumbent captain, David Young, is injured, and Taylor's consistency and obvious favour with the Wales coach, Graham Henry, put him firmly in the frame, alongside Gibbs and Scott Quinnell. "Graham says selection for the Tests will depend on form in the European games," explains Taylor, "so that's all I am concentrating on. I'll think about it if I'm asked, but at the moment nothing has been said."

Taylor's first spell in the Wales side was as a Pontypool player in the season before the 1995 World Cup, but he hardly had a look-in again until a massively depleted squad toured Zimbabwe and South Africa in June 1998. "I was close to tears when we gave away 96 points," he said. "I'd looked on it as my big chance to stake a claim for a place again."

In the intervening period Taylor had switched clubs to Swansea and had the distraction of finishing his qualifications as a chartered accoun- tant. He still puts in 15 hours a week managing the accounts of a Peugeot car dealership in Llanelli, as one of around a dozen of Swansea's first team holding down jobs or pursuing degree courses. "We don't keep the boys at the club from 9am to 5pm," says the coach, John Plumtree. "Their enthusiasm has got to stay high."

Taylor got lucky, as he modestly puts it, when Henry took over in September 1998 and wiped clean the slate of selection. Allan Bateman missed the national trials through injury, and Henry went with Gibbs and Taylor in the rematch against South Africa at Wembley, curiously Taylor's fourth crack at the Springboks in his first seven caps.

This time it was a close-run thing, at the start of a red-letter year for Henry's team which included famous wins over France in Paris and England at Wembley, and a 2-0 Test series victory in Argentina. Taylor was there all the way, although he squeezed in enough free time to get married the day before he left for the Argentina tour. Then came the first- ever Welsh defeat of South Africa in the inaugural match at the Millennium Stadium, when Taylor scored the first try at the new ground.

"There were 27,000 there but the noise was tremendous," he recalls. An unopposed run-in, after a sharp hand-off into the chest of Japie Mulder, was "an awesome moment", which earned a £6,000 diamond tie-pin as a memento from the Welsh Rugby Union.

The World Cup on home soil and a mixed Six Nations campaign have since been endured as much as enjoyed, but Taylor has continued to earn plaudits from peers and pundits alike. "Mark's totally dedicated to the game," says Plumtree, now in his fourth season at St Helens. "It hurts him when he loses but he's not a moody sort of character. We changed all the players' training schedules a couple of years ago and Mark's stronger and faster now, plus he is probably five or six kilos heavier and that has given him the confidence to compete at a higher level. He must be a good candidate for the Lions next year."

Taylor himself praises his clubmate Gibbs, already twice a Lion, for his contribution. "Whenever I make a break he's very good at getting on my shoulder, even if he's the one who gave me the ball in the first place. He's like a safety valve for me and I like to think I work the same way for him. Defensively you're dependent on the person inside you if anybody cuts back, and I think our defence is good in that respect."

Plumtree, who has the Wales rugby league coach Clive Griffiths working on defence, adds: "Arwel is playing really well and Scott's coming back into form after having a poor World Cup and a couple of injuries last year. They're a deadly combination. Scott makes the hard yards, and if the defence misses him, it's try time with a short pass to Tayls."

A few more try times in the next fortnight and Thomas, Gibbs and Taylor could all be pulling on the Wales jersey - the new model, a rather garish red effort with a white pinstripe down each arm, was unveiled this week - against Samoa on 11 November.