Wales call takes John by surprise

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The Independent Online
RUGBY UNION

BY STEVE BALE

Spencer John is a promising prop of tender years with high ambition but he did not believe it when his mother told him Robert Norster was on the phone. The Wales manager was about to tell the 21-year-old he had been selected to represent Wales against Scotland on Saturday week.

"I thought it was just one big wind-up," John said yesterday when the team announcement was made in Cardiff. Many have tried to mimic Norster's Gwent valley voice but few have succeeded, and in the end John had to be persuaded that, with John Davies suspended after his dismissal against England, he really would be making his international debut.

His selection is a speculation for the future from which Wales can reasonably hope to accumulate hugely. "He will cope very well with Murrayfield and I have complete faith in him," Ieuan Evans, Wales captain and Llanelli team-mate, said.

Evans will follow Robert Jones to 50 caps with the objective more evidently difficult after Wales's defeat by England and Scotland's defeat of France than it had appeared to be beforehand. It is not only Davies's 60-day suspension, which the Welsh selectors hope only to have reduced by this week's appeal, but the latest round of injuries that have adversely affected the Five Nations champions.

John fills the tight-head place after ousting Hugh Williams-Jones, who went into the Wales front row last Saturday, as Llanelli's first choice this season. It is a bold choice, but as Norster put it: "Spencer is very mature for his age. He has the physique and footballing ability and is going to be a very fine player."

That makes you wonder why John was not already in the side, and his 6ft 1in and 17st confirm Norster's first point. In fact he is a Neath product, living barely half a mile from The Gnoll who started playing for Llanelli only because Davies - who, as a Cardiganshire farmer, lives much further away - was the club's first choice. Although an under-18, under-19 and under-21 international, John has never even played for the Wales A team.

The other changes were more obvious, Matthew Back retaining Anthony Clement's full-back place after replacing him against England and Wayne Proctor again returning on the wing for the stricken Nigel Walker. Mike Hall has been chosen instead of Mark Taylor at centre on the assumption that Hall's rib injury will have healed.

Changes on the bench bring the return of David Evans, now of Treorchy but 11 times a Wales player when with Cardiff, and Justin Thomas, another 21-year-old who plays full-back or wing mainly for Cardiff Institute but is attached to Llanelli and is trying to get in to Cambridge University.

Meanwhile John Hall, one of the great English forwards of the past decade, announced yesterday that he would retire at the end of this season - which he still hopes will be at the end of the World Cup in South Africa. The Bath captain, winner of 21 caps, said: "It feels like the right time. I don't want to stand in the way of other players."

WALES (v Scotland, Murrayfield, 4 March): M Back (Bridgend); I Evans (Llanelli, capt), M Hall (Cardiff), N Davies, W Proctor (Llanelli); N Jenkins (Pontypridd), R Jones (Swansea); M Griffiths (Cardiff), G Jenkins (Swansea), S John (Llanelli), G O Llewellyn (Neath), D Jones (Cardiff), H Taylor, E Lewis (Cardiff), R Collins (Pontypridd). Replacements: J Thomas (Cardiff Institute), D Evans (Treorchy), R Moon, H Williams-Jones, R McBryde, P Davies (Llanelli).

n Thierry Lacroix, the France centre, is expected to be one of three to six players dropped for the last Five Nations' Championship match away to Ireland following defeats by England and Scotland. The team to be named tomorrow is also unlikely to include Laurent Cabannes and the stand-off, Christophe Deylaud. The centre, Philippe Sella, lock Olivier Roumat and prop Laurent Seigne may also be left out.

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