Swansea to press home advantage

Rugby Union
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The Independent Online
The shop window has been bare for years: far from breathing fire across an international stage it once dominated with such glorious elan, the Red Dragon has wheezed and panted its way pathetically from one asphyxiating disappointment to another in a decade smothered by sackcloth and ashes. A rugby stronghold? Wales? Pull the other one.

But there are very real risks in judging this particular book by its cover. For all the faults and frailties regularly exposed by rival Test sides in sundry Five Nations' Championships and World Cups, the Welsh can still flex an effective muscle or two at club level. Only one band of cross-border visitors, the French grandees from Toulouse, have won a Heineken Cup match in the principality since the launch of the competition in 1995, and Swansea, who open this year's tournament by taking on the English kingpins Wasps at St Helen's tomorrow, have no intention of allowing that tally to be doubled at their expense.

Garin Jenkins, appointed captain of the All Whites last season in a bold and so far successful experiment in school bully-turned-prefect psychology, believes his club are beginning to shed their image as the unpredictable, unreliable mavericks of the Welsh game.

"Inconsistency has been a big problem in the seven years I've been at St Helen's- as recently as last season we simply failed to show up at a couple of games we really ought to have won - but we've consciously addressed the problem and added some backbone, a layer of steel," the former Welsh hooker said.

Much of that strengthening work was performed by Mike Ruddock, a gifted and resourceful coach, before his departure to Leinster during the summer. Happily from Swansea's point of view, John Plumtree, a 32-year-old New Zealander brought in as Ruddock's full-time replacement, is coming from a similar direction. It should be an explosive mix: traditional All White adventure underpinned by some equally traditional All Black discipline.

"Home advantage is a big factor in rugby these days and it's getting bigger all the time, so victory over Wasps tomorrow is a minimum requirement in terms of our progress in this competition," said the 32-year-old coach from Taranaki who this time last year was still playing big-time rugby in Durban for Natal. "In the Heineken two home wins are a must. If you can also get a result on the road you're pretty much guaranteed a place in the knock-out phase.

"I'm here on a two-year contract and I've come to win things, obviously. The end result is the thing people look at and judge you by, so silverware on the shelf is the target. But I also want to see Swansea's rugby improve in all departments, and that means picking up the intensity of what we do, both in training and on match day.

"Above all, I want to see us get out of the hole of going to some small, out-of-the-way place and allowing a side to compete with us when, in reality, they are nowhere near as good. We should be capable of working out opponents for 25 minutes and then burying them. The days of one good performance and one bad are gone."

Plumtree accepts that "his" Swansea have yet to be tested, although the 47-11 victory at Ebbw Vale in the opening round of Welsh premiership matches provided some evidence that the "away thing" has been summarily dealt with. However, Wasps, led by Lawrence Dallaglio and equipped with international performers in every department, will ask the kind of questions their English rivals found all but unanswerable last season.

In particular they will throw up their extraordinarily effective blanket defence and dare Arwel Thomas, Scott Gibbs and company to plot a route through it - or, if the off-the-wall Thomas is on song, around it, over it or under it. "I've never seen Wasps play, but I know of their reputation as a strong defensive side," Plumtree said yesterday. "The game is based more on defence now than at any other time in its history - it really is a huge part of winning rugby - so Wasps will give us an indication of exactly how good we are."

Swansea must launch their Heineken challenge without a third of their first-choice side as Simon Davies, Mark Taylor, Andy Moore, Colin Charvis and Stuart Davies are all unfit, and while Jenkins is a long-term subscriber to the "get your retaliation in first" philosophy, he is not the sort to hide behind early excuses.

"Wasps have a strong squad with class in all positions, but we have a good squad too and this sort of game gives us the exposure we need," he said. "It's just like the good old days, when matches between Welsh and English clubs really meant something. The rivalry is back, and with a European trophy on the end of it I'm expecting some intense rugby over the next few weeks."