Youth seek to fulfil a heritage

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The Independent Online
WITH five minutes left against England at Twickenham in March 1994, Wales won a line-out deep into their opponents' half. Their forwards held the ball in a series of rucks and advanced inexorably towards the English line until, five metres out, Phil Davies spotted Nigel Walker free on the left wing. He took the ball, sprinted forward and touched down. Wales lost the match, but they had secured the Five Nations' Championship, on points difference, for the first time in six years.

If some thought this was the beginning of a resurgence for which they had yearned since the serial successes of the Seventies, they were to be disappointed. So was Walker, who twice dislocated a shoulder last year, missed part of the Five Nations and was not selected for the World Cup. His experience is typical of those who have set out to fulfil the legacy of Gareth Edwards, Barry John, Phil Bennett, Gerald Davies and JPR Williams - a brief flicker of talent, a fleeting taste of victory and then a cruel setback.

Now 32, Walker has recovered fitness but he has still not reclaimed a regular first-team place at Cardiff let alone forced his way into the plans of Wales's new national coach, Kevin Bowring. And they seem to be plans from which he can draw little personal encouragement.

Though his age may count against him, the former Olympic hurdler backs Bowring's aim to build a side that should reach maturity in time for the 1999 World Cup in Wales. "The current squad is rich in potential and contains most of the genuinely promising players in Wales," Walker said. "I'd expect them to have a difficult time over the next 18 months, but the priority for the selectors will be to stick with these players."

Bowring's rejection of the British Lion Robert Jones has vexed many, but Walker feels that the Swansea scrum-half's 54th cap, which he won at the World Cup, may have been his last. "Bowring has said the door isn't closed to anybody, no matter his age, but it's going to be difficult for Robert to get back unless he's playing exceptionally well. On the other hand, Ieuan Evans is older than Robert and he's still around, but when you have a 50-50 choice between a player in his 30s and one of 25, you would be foolish to go for the older man. Ideally, you need to strike a balance."

One older man who is expected to come into contention is Jonathan Davies. Walker is convinced that the 33-year-old, who has just returned to union, will confound the ageist policy and be picked for Wales's summer tour to Australia if not before.

"The trouble with Welsh rugby is that everyone is looking for saviours," Walker said. "Jonathan has only played half a dozen games since returning and already he's being spoken of in such terms. He's a world-class player and I don't think there is any doubt that had he not gone to league he would have been the best outside-half in the game for many years. But most of his rugby since joining Cardiff has been at the centre - he has only played two games at outside-half in seven years. I think he's relieved not to have been picked. He probably needs another month of playing."

A lot can happen in a month though. A heavy defeat at Twickenham could prematurely end Bowring's youth policy and lead to calls for Davies's restoration, though the keyhole surgery he requires on a torn knee ligament would appear to rule him out of the Cardiff game against Scotland on 17 February.

Walker himself dreams of a glorious return. These days he doubles up as a development officer for the Sports Council of Wales and a part-time broadcaster, but he has not given up hope: "I most certainly don't regard my international career as over. But I haven't played much this season. Simon Hill and Steve Ford [Cardiff's other international wings] are both in good form.

"With Simon likely to be on international duty over the next two months, I'm hoping to play four or five games in a row. Realistically, I haven't much chance of forcing my way back for the Five Nations, so my main target is to make the squad for next summer's tour."

If nothing else, Welsh rugby has the capacity to surprise. And so it is still a possibility, albeit a distant one, that Walker will score the try that recaptures the championship.

Walker's verdict on the new Welsh guard

Justin Thomas (Llanelli), full-back, 22. Exceptionally quick, which is his main asset. Slightly-built by modern standards, is barely 12 stone but very brave in defence. Can expect an aerial bombardment at Twickenham.

Gareth Thomas (Bridgend), centre, 21. Got three tries on his Wales debut at the World Cup against Japan. Has just got back into the squad since being injured against Fiji in November.

Leigh Davies (Neath), centre, 19. Made Wales debut against Italy earlier this month. A big boy who has played well this season; isn't content just to run down the middle of the pitch - likes to go outside if he can.

Andy Moore (Cardiff), scrum-half, 27. Accomplished all-round playmaker. Had a good game against Italy, first-choice since the World Cup, seems to be well established.

Jonathan Humphreys (Cardiff), hooker, 26. Was told to improve his fitness by Alex Evans when he became Cardiff coach three years ago. In 18 months, went from being a club also-ran to an international skipper. Fast, mobile, good handler, excellent throw-in at lineouts.

Andrew Lewis (Cardiff), loose-head prop, 22. Bound to improve and get bigger. Good hands and very mobile, yet holds the pack up well.

Gareth Llewellyn (Neath), second row, 26. More than 40 caps. Recent omission little to do with his form which is excellent. Must have upset management during World Cup. Great front-of-the-lineout jumper.

Gwyn Jones (Llanelli), wing forward, 23. Old-fashioned flanker, not dissimilar to Neil Back. Genuine flyer who saw a lot of the ball against Italy.

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