Taylor handed his chance

Geoffrey Nicholson analyses the qualities of a Welsh forward on his Five Nations debut
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The Independent Online
THE battle honours of most past rugby internationals are not exactly what you'd call exotic. Little but Twickenham, Murrayfield, Lansdowne Road, the Arms Park and Parc des Princes with a string of dates behind them. How they must envy Hemi Taylor with a roll that reads - in order of his eight appearances in the Wales back row - Lisbon, Toronto, Suva, Nuku'alofa, Apia, Bucharest and Cardiff (twice). All this before he has even made his national debut in the Five Nations' Championship.

That will come next Saturday when Taylor, born 30 years ago in Morrinsville on the North Island of New Zealand, but qualified to play for Wales by residence, will turn out against his new country's oldest and dearest enemies, the English. It is a meeting that both Taylor and the Welsh selectors have been at pains to contrive - Taylor by willing himself to recover quickly from a serious injury to his hand, and the selectors by waiting patiently to see if he did so.

They had meant to announce the team last Tuesday, but gave themselves two days' grace in order to watch Taylor play for Cardiff on Wednesday evening. It was his first game in nearly two months, and his gutsy performance made the delay worthwhile. But the fact that they accepted it shows how much store they set by the speed, hardness and good, old- fashioned All Black virtues of their adopted son.

Not that Taylor ever made the New Zealand side, though he was raised in the system and got a trial for the NZ Colts before coming over to Wales in 1986 to join Newbridge. He played more than 100 games for them before moving onward and upward to Cardiff in the 1992-93 season. From here he operates as a schools rugby development officer, but remains otherwise a pretty private individual.

It was now that it dawned on the Welsh that he was keen and eligible to play for them. As the Welsh Rugby Union technical director, Jeff Young, said at the time: "He has made his home here, has settled down in Risca with a Welsh girl, and has made an enormous contribution to club rugby in Wales."

In the autumn of 1993 he was picked for Wales A against Japan, but for the rest of the season got no closer than the bench to the senior side. It was in the early summer, as Wales faced a series of World Cup qualifying matches and a debilitating tour to Canada and the South Seas, that Taylor came to be seen as an essential element of the squad. He played his first full international, scoring a try, against Portugal, and if he had not twisted his knee ligaments, would have been picked against Spain a few days later. A second victory here guaranteed Wales their passage to South Africa, and Taylor had done enough to secure his place on the summer tour.

As usual, Ieuan Evans chose a film for the team to go and see on the eve of their first test in Toronto. He has often noticed how uncannily the side seems to react to it the following day. They'd played particularly badly at Murrayfield in 1991, for instance, after watching and hating Reservoir Dogs. This time the choice was Four Weddings and a Funeral, which seemed to go down pretty well with the players, but in the end proved almost too prophetic. Four victories over Canada A, Canada, Fiji and Tonga were followed by defeat at the hands of Western Samoa, the one ghost they had particularly wanted to lay.

Taylor played in all four tests, but against the Samoans only as a replacement for 11 minutes. Since he had been one of the outstanding players on the tour, the Welsh camp followers found it bizarre that Taylor had not been an original selection. Especially against a side which could only be stopped by his style of hard tackling. But at least, on the squad's return, Taylor was not overlooked for the remaining World Cup prelims with Romania and Italy, and that roasting warm-up with South Africa.

His seamless progress to the Five Nations seemed assured until, two evenings before Christmas, he was involved in what is euphemistically called "a pavement incident" outside a Cardiff night club, when Taylor is thought to have come to the help of a hard-pressed team-mate. During the fracas he popped all four knuckles of his right hand and was left with major damage to the tendons of three fingers. It was, according to the surgeon, a horrifying injury, and required three separate operations over the space of nine days. Although they were successful, the near-certainty was still that Taylor would miss the Five Nations.

What confounded this prognosis - notwithstanding the skills of surgeon and physiotherapist - was Taylor's willingness to endure the pain of the treatment and return for more. And at the same time continue with his training. It would be hard to imagine a more single-minded response to the odds against him. And given the opposition next Saturday, maybe this is what swung the vote in Taylor's favour.