Neil Jenkins – A Tribute

In Rugby on October 11, 2011 at 6:01 pm

Back in the 90s, before the game “modernised” and the average international Rugby Union team looked like little more than a stag do, it was a time of folk heroes. There weren’t any really rounded players, no-one you could call complete in the same sense as you would today. They were rugby playing caricatures, known for having one or two traits that would distinguish them from the next player, exceptional in one or two areas but still relatable to anyone who played the game. They still boasted beer bellies and would be spotted drinking heavily in the midst of international tournaments as if it was just another lazy throw-around on a Sunday.

At the start of that glorious decade a young lad with the face of a 40 year old labourer made his debut for Pontypridd. He was noted for being relatively quick, decent ball carrying skills and he could kick the ball a bit. The following year he made his debut for Wales at aged 19 and there was little more, on that debut showing, to add to those few scant observations. That game would have been mostly forgotten in Wales given that it was a 25-6 defeat against the hated English. Yet in this game this player kicked his first three points for his country, the first three points in a tally that would go on to break all the international records. It was Neil Jenkins.

You see, before Johnny Wilkinson came along with his kicking prowess, spawning a series of imitators that would copy his style right down to picking up the blade of grass to check for wind velocity, there was only one kicking machine at international level and he was Welsh. Sure, his prowess came with some negatives. That pace he had at 19 left him quicker than Jordan does one of her husbands, he wasn’t quick-footed and his distribution was reliable but unspectacular. The one thing Jenko, affectionately known as “Pob” by his international teammates, did better than anyone else was ping a ball between the uprights from anywhere on the park, no theatrics necessary either. He didn’t have to think about it.

Which is why I and many others love him so much. His kicking always gave Wales a chance in any game and rival teams knew this. It didn’t matter whether it was the champagne rugby that the fans always bayed for, or the reliance on the trundling pack, which was the reality for most of the time, if he was in the opponent’s half he could make it count. It gained criticism from the rest of the international teams at the time but it would later become a blueprint for England’s success.

OF course, that love wasn’t always there. The number 10 shirt is sacred to the Welsh and whoever wears it immediately draws comparison to the greats. When you’ve had the player lauded as the greatest fly-half to play the game, Barry John, represent your country in that position the boots don’t get any bigger to fill. He never had that sort of flair and it took a while to win over the fans, his style of play more effective if less pleasing on the eye than any of the hall of famers that went before him. One dimensional by contrast, he showed the world kicking was enough to win games.

Just how prolific a kicker he was can never be underestimated. As the game changed around him he did try to keep up, developing his ability to run but it was with his boot he always did the damage. It took him just 28 tests to become the Welsh national points scoring record holder and in the 87 caps he won he added to it in every match. If the first nine years of his career were laying the foundations it would be at the two years he would cement his reputation as the greatest fly-half Wales ever had.

What red-blooded Welshman can forget his kick that foiled England’s five nation victory in ’99, 3 points won right at the death that did nothing for Wales but broke English hearts? It sparked celebrations as if Wales had won the competition even though all it did was pave the way for Scotland to do so. He also showed what a committed player he was at club level, accepting an MBE only if he could still make the kick-off of his game for Cardiff. With the assistance of a helicopter he made it and put in a match-winning performance.

The following year he surpassed the 1,000 point mark, the first player to ever do so and he did it with a sublime display against France in their backyard. As if answering the critics about his lack of versatility he scored in every way possible to cement his place in the record books forever.

Sadly the writing was on the wall. The talismanic player was getting old, his battered body reduced to little more than a muscular leg attached to a failing torso. Unable to start for the British Lions the same year he broke the record, a young pretender called Johnny Wilkinson became the preferred starter in that position. It was the passing of the baton, a moment that confirmed the shift in the way the game was going and the arrival of the next generation of player, the fly-half position forever altered to have to be played the way that Jenkins played it.

Sadly his record couldn’t stand and it was his replacement with the Lions who broke it. For many, this would suggest the latter is the greater player. Not so. He set the records for Wilkinson to break and did it without a golden generation of world beaters around him. He played at a time where anyone with a sports science degree was leered at suspiciously and the words “put something cold on it” was a euphemism for a pint after a match. The game modernised around him and he helped shape that future even as it unfolded. There can be no doubt who the history books will point to as the definitive fly-half of the modern era.

Despite all of this, he still remains an unassuming figure. The son of a scrap dealer, a working class hero and a true sporting great, he is a million times easier to love and respect than a private schoolboy from Surrey. Let the latter have the record. The Welsh know who the greatest is.


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