The Rugby World Cup: The scorer they couldn't poach

The Kicker: Neil Jenkins of Wales
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FEW WELSHMAN know how close they came to losing Neil Jenkins to rugby league. When I was at Widnes in 1990 I saw Neil score two tries for Warrington reserves. Hardly anyone knew about his secret trial and nothing came of it, but he continued to be a target for league clubs.

He was still in his teens then, but you could see that he would have been a big asset in the other code. He could tackle and distribute well and, of course, they would have drooled over his kicking. I don't know how tempted he was, but at the time there was a steady stream of Welsh players moving up north. After I went myself in January 1989, John Devereux, Paul Moriarty, Jonathan Griffiths, Scott Gibbs and Allan Bateman were among those who followed suit.

What helped Neil stay behind was the fact that he was playing for his local club, Pontypridd, who were very supportive, and the fact that the club's sponsors, Just Rentals, were also very good to him. Welsh rugby owes both a debt of gratitude for the tremendous job they did in keeping him at home.

It was very tempting to go north in those days. Welsh rugby wasn't in a good state and to play for Wales, especially at outside-half, was to be guaranteed the cruellest of criticism. When Neil eventually got into the Welsh team in 1991 he took more than his fair share of stick, and no one could have blamed him for taking the well-worn path into the paid ranks. Who knows, instead of preparing to help Wales win the World Cup he could be a leading figure in the Great Britain rugby league squad for the Tri-Nations against Australia and New Zealand next month. But as much as he likes league - we often talk about the games we've seen - I've no doubt he feels he is where he belongs, and there is so much he can achieve in the next six weeks.

Even if Wales don't win the trophy, it could be a world-beating tournament for him. He is already the second most prolific scorer in inter- national rugby union history, behind only Australia's Michael Lynagh. The 74 points he needs to pass Lynagh's total of 911 are well within his grasp. If Wales get to the quarter-finals, and Jenkins plays all the group matches, then he will displace Ieuan Evans as the most-capped player in Welsh history, with 73.

And, because he is still only 28, I'm sure he will eventually pass Phillippe Sella's world record of 111.

It has been a pleasure to watch his progress, although it certainly hasn't always been plain sailing for him. He has had to win the admiration of many of his countrymen the hard way, simply because he didn't fit the mental image they have of a Welsh outside-half.

Before I saw him play that match for Warrington I had seen him occasionally in action for Pontypridd. It was mainly glimpses on television, because I was busy adjusting to my league life at the time. His mop of ginger hair made him difficult not to notice, and he had this innocent look about him. But my first impressions were of an honest player, a good tackler who defended well and passed intelligently.

At that time Wales were going through a rough patch, and outside-half was one of the problem positions. I had played in that role 27 times with hardly a break, so there was no ready-made replacement when I departed. I was also captain, and we had just lost at home to Romania.

Everyone seemed to think it was my fault, which was partly why I decided to try my luck in league. The outside-half berth was seen as the key to everything, despite the fact that there were plenty of other difficulties in plenty of other areas facing the side.

Before they got round to giving Neil a try in 1991, several players had been tried in the red No 10 shirt: Mark Ring, Bleddyn Bowen, Colin Stephens and Paul Turner. Wales were struggling, so it wasn't an enviable challenge.

You needed quick feet, not to make breaks but to get yourself out of trouble, because you were playing off the back foot most of the time. Although his kicking continually saved the day, Neil's general play didn't satisfy the fans. They had been brought up on quicksilver outside-halves, always making the daring breaks. Even now there are those who would prefer a player like Arwel Thomas.

I don't mention that as a slight on Arwel, but to show that however much Neil has achieved he has had to wait a long time for recognition. He played a tremendous role in the British Lions' triumph in South Africa in 1997, despite playing out of position at full-back, and even that didn't silence the moaners.

If they'd only bothered to study his play for Pontypridd they would have seen his capabilities. "Why doesn't he play for Wales like he does for Ponty?" they used to ask. The answer was quite simple. With Pontypridd he spent most of the time going forwards, while with Wales he was going backwards. Now, in this revitalised Welsh team, he can play the game he played at club level. He is so confident, he can display all his abilities behind a pack that has so many options, he can use his tactical kicking skills to dictate the play.

As for his goal-kicking, he is the best I've ever seen. He's better now that he was with the Lions because he never ever stops practising.

Far from being in the shadow of the traditional Welsh outside-halves, he has created a new mould. Few can appreciate how difficult that has been; there are no fiercer furnaces than the one Neil Jenkins has been through.