There's only one Michael Owen - in rugby, that is

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The Independent Online

When you meet someone who is 6ft 5in and weighs 18st, there isn't much need to go looking for a reason to feel small. But you can do it anyway. Just ask: "What's it like to be called Michael Owen?" And stand back.

When you meet someone who is 6ft 5in and weighs 18st, there isn't much need to go looking for a reason to feel small. But you can do it anyway. Just ask: "What's it like to be called Michael Owen?" And stand back.

"Er, that's my name," he will tell you. "I've had it for as long as I can remember."

Best move on and, for the sake of what little self- respect is left, best not speculate that in a country where the surname Owen is almost as common as the christian name Michael, perhaps this isn't one of Welsh sport's most unlikely probabilities. Now if they had a player called Sven Goran Eriksson...

Fortunately, such irrelevant musings can end there, because Owen is rapidly forging himself a name that will soon banish forever any crass connection. But while the 24-year-old might no longer be the best-kept secret in Wales since Shirley Bassey's wig, to the rest of the kingdom the No 8 blessed with hands so precious he could easily be known as "Goldfingers" remains largely unknown. All this is about to change.

"This is a big Six Nations for me," says the 1,000th player to be capped by Wales. "The challenge is to move on to the next level. Rather than just being a young player coming through, with 20 caps behind me it's time to start being one of the main players."

Wales will be mightily relieved he thinks so after a week in which they lost two of their main players in the back row - their indomitable Lions, Colin Charvis and Martyn Williams - for next Saturday's tear-up with England.

"Yeah, it was a massive blow losing those two, both so experienced, both so influential," Owen said. "But don't worry, we have a few boys here who can make more-than-adequate replacements."

Jonathan Thomas is one option to fill in alongside Owen and Llanelli's Dafydd Jones, although Mike Ruddock may well draw on the inspiration of those first-cap wonders of folklore and go with Richie Pugh to "do a Keith Jarrett". Owen maintains the 21-year-old would be up to it, and Wales have learned to trust in their youth.

Together with Gavin Henson, Dwayne Peel, Adam Jones and Ceri Sweeney, Owen is the principal reason for such refreshing faith, although he confesses that when the untried and untested were enrolling for their harsh education in that Six Nations whitewash of two seasons ago it was just as harsh to watch the criticism peppering the then coach, Steve Hansen.

"Sometimes the press and the public can't see the whole picture," he said. "Even then we could feel the improvement being made, what we were supposed to be doing, where we were going. Steve was bringing in a revolution, making us learn quickly, and everything since has been an been upward curve."

New Zealand will testify how upward, as would South Africa, France and yes, England, all of whom have been run within a whisker of a scalping by Wales within the past 18 months. Much is being made of the time being nigh to deliver the "big one", although Owen is keen to play down the emergency.

"We can't get ahead of ourselves," he said. "Although it is difficult after that autumn international with the All Blacks, when we couldn't have done any more but win."

Ah, that day in November when New Zealand escaped by a point and Wales truly began to believe. "It was like winning," said Owen. "That game, more than any other, was when it all clicked for us and the fans. The crowd at the Millennium Stadium has been a bit muted, but that day there was a magical atmosphere, like the old days. Against England we must again give them something to cheer, and then we can feed off each other."

Until they want no more, no doubt, although judging by the demand for tickets, which are now "gold dust" once more after being "coal dust" for so long, the Welsh appetite appears more vociferous than ever. Of course, there is the England factor to stoke their passion - although Owen swears that means little to the players, saying: "We're going to need a lot more than emotion to get us through" - and Mike Ruddock's timely arrival as a "Welsh" coach has also fanned the patriotic fervour.

Luckily for Owen, as the man who enticed him from his home town of Pontypridd to Gwent, Ruddock is as big a fan of this cultured forward as Hansen was. "Steve was great to me, but saw me more as a second-row. And although I was happy to play anywhere, No 8 is where I'm most comfortable. Mike's kept an open mind, telling me we'll do whatever's best for the team [he played Owen at lock in the autumn test against South Africa], but it'll be fantastic to have a chance of proving myself in the back-row."

Watch for the slip passes, the subtle offloads, the outlandish pick-ups, because Owen's hands are hewn from the same mystical element as that endless list of Welsh legends. He has a long way to go before that comparison is any more substantive - and knows it. "I'm not the most powerful, but I'm working on it, concentrating on my 'explosiveness', if you like," he said. "It's just a case of putting in the hours and letting it happen."

In truth, Wales haven't the time to "let it happen" - they need an explosive ball-carrier by Saturday. There really would be only one Michael Owen then.

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