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Rugby Union: Scott Gibbs - Neil Jenkins: Valleys boy with the heart of a Lion.

Byline: Scott Gibbs

T RIBUTES have been made to Neil Jenkins this week after he announced he was retiring from international rugby and all I can say is that no praise is high enough for a national icon.

Neil and I made our international debuts together as raw 19-year olds against England at the old National Stadium in 1991, but our association started long before then.

My first memory of him is on a filthy day at Llantwit Fardre in an under-11 district match. The pitch was a bog and Neil could hardly kick the ball off the floor, let alone get it over the posts.

You wouldnever have guessed then that he would go on to become the first player to reach 1,000 points in international rugby, but one quality he has always had is determination.

He has had a number of knock-backs in his career but he has always bounced back. He does not let praise or criticism affect him and fame has not affected his persona

i t y.

Neil has always been rated by his peers and it says it all about his achievements that he played for most of his career in an unsuccessful Wales team - without him, there would have been more defeats.

Amazingly for someone who kicked so many crucial penalties and conversions, keeping his nerve in the tensestof moments and the most hostile of environments, such as Durban's King's Park with the Lions in 1997, he was a wreck before matches.

He would be in the changing room with an ashen face and moments later he would be directing the game with a calm focus. The greater the pressure on him, the more he thrived. I am remembered for scoring the late try against England at Wembley in 1999 which won us the game, but all I did was to bring us to within a point of the old enemy. Neil had to kick the conversion to take us into the lead and as I walked back with the ball, he cursed me for not dotting down closer to the posts and finishing off my run with a dive. ``Just kick it,'' I said in my best Anglo-Saxon and even though it was well to the right of the posts, I never had any doubt that the ball would sail between them. There was no other player in the world you would want to be taking that conversion.

He was the player who won the rubber for the Lions against South Africa. I may have been voted man of the series, but it was Neil who landed kick after kick in Cape Town and Durban as whistles resounded around the grounds.

He had been playing out of position at full-back but he kicked in those Tests as if hewas practising on his local park. While the Springboks were busy putting theirs wide, Neil made every chance count and he became a British hero. I thought, and hoped, that he would become the first Wales player to reach 100 caps. He would have done but for selectorial whims earlier in his career; he was constantly criticised for not being an outside-half in the traditional Wales mould, all jinking and dancing. But he was a player of his time and he never pretended to be anything he was not.

He never lost his natural modesty and he deserved better than to see his international career fizzle towards its end after he picked up an accumulation of injuries - but 87 Welsh caps tell their own s t ory.

He came close to moving to rugby league a few times and I have no doubt that, like Frano Botica at Wigan, he would have made the transition successfu

l y.

Neil has always worked hard, turning weaknesses into strengths, and his desire to succeed is as strong as anyone I have ever known.

He has always described himself as a Valleys boy and he has remained exactly that. He is the most successful Welsh player of his generation, but no one would ever know that by talking to him.

He must not be lost to the game when he finishes his playing career at the end of next season. I have no doubt that he will become a top coach; his man-management skills are excellent, he is a keen student of the game and he inspires those around him.

His retirement marks the end of an era and I know just how tough a decision it would have been for him. There comes a time when we all have to accept that we will never again be the way we were.

I remember little about the game in 1991 but the presence of Neil, a familiar face in a new environment, was reassuring.

It was fitting that we combined to help defeat England at Wembley eight years later, a world away from that grim day in Llantwit Fardre where it all began.

Thanks for the memories Neil.

CAPTION(S):

BRITISH HEROES: Neil Jenkins and Scott Gibbs celebrate their success on the 1997 British Lions tour of South Africa
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Title Annotation:Sport
Publication:Western Mail (Cardiff, Wales)
Date:May 14, 2003
Words:853
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