Another four years, then; 48 months of blood and sweat, of frustration and insecurity and a thousand "what ifs?" and "how comes?" Had Chris Wyatt been harder on himself – and the general opinion among the Welsh rugby hierarchy is that the Llanelli lock is too soft by half on the self-criticism front – he could possibly have saved himself a good deal of anguish, in the sense that he might already be a Lion.
But he missed the boat last summer; he went backwards instead of forwards during the Six Nations, and Graham Henry, his national coach, went Wallaby-hunting without him. And from where Wyatt is now standing, New Zealand 2005 seems far, far away.
Depressingly, he knew of his fate long before Henry confirmed it by omitting him from his 37-strong squad for Australia. "I suppose I realised the game was up as I was walking off the pitch following the defeat by England in Cardiff in February," Wyatt said last week. "The disappointment was huge. The whole Lions thing had been a dream for so long, and suddenly the dream was over. We were off form as a team, just as I was off form as an individual. Unfortunately for me, out-of-form individuals tend not to make the cut for a Lions tour."
At the start of last season, the mobile second row from Stradey Park was on everyone's shortlist for a seat on the plane to Perth. He was a cast-iron ball winner in the line-out, he could cover the field like a flanker, he had dependable hands and he could look after himself. During those glorious few months in 1999 when the Red Dragonhood won 10 Tests on the trot and bore the stamp of a world-class side in the making, Wyatt was among the most prominent figures – indeed, he started eight of those games, including the triumphant matches against England and South Africa, the two wins over France and all three victories over Argentina. For good measure, he came off the bench in the remaining contests.
So what happened? Did Henry really take umbrage at Wyatt's good-time habits and sack him as an example to the rest? (Shock horror: Welsh second row in booze and fags scandal!). Or did the dictatorial New Zealander simply consider him an out-of-sorts liability and drop him for his own good? "I think there were a number of reasons why I found myself out of the side," said Wyatt, diplomatically. "To be quite honest, I think a large part of the trouble stemmed from the fact that I put too much pressure on myself. That can happen, especially in a Lions year.
"Sometimes, you are too close to the problem to see it for what it is; the worse you play, the more difficult it is to sort it out on your own. You lose touch with the very parts of your game that made you a Test player in the first place. In the end, it all came tumbling down around me. So when the season finished, I went through everything very carefully and identified what I wanted from my rugby. I had long chats with the people at Llanelli, established that we were all pulling in the same direction and went back to work on 20 May, which is bloody early, even in this day and age."
Wyatt, who turned 28 during the off-season, considered leaving Stradey. Newport were keen on his services and he was tempted by their approach, not least because he was born in the town. Gloucester also went after him, and again, Wyatt was caught in two minds. "I liked the look of the set-up at Kingsholm, I must admit," he said. "Gloucester generate the kind of passionate support we get at Llanelli for a big match, and I found that attractive. But it was important to think about the longer term, and I came to the conclusion that playing in England would not improve my prospects of a return to the Welsh team."
The latest available evidence suggests that Wyatt made the right call. He is back in Henry's good books, and back in the engine room for tonight's international with Romania at the Millennium Stadium, partnering Swansea's Andy Moore in the absence of the injured Ian Gough. A strong showing will give him an even-money chance of a Six Nations place against the Grand Slam-chasing Irish on 13 October, and a decent outing then against Malcolm O'Kelly and Jeremy Davidson – two locks who beat him to a Lions place four months ago – would rekindle his international career.
Especially now that the Wild One is as hard on himself as any boyo on the Red Dragon block. Last Friday night, when he played out of position in miserable conditions against Glasgow in a dire Celtic League match at Hughenden, Wyatt could be seen castigating himself for every mistake. Contrary to popular belief, he really does care. Perhaps New Zealand 2005 is not as far away as it seems.Reuse content