Neil Jenkins at 50: The humble Valleys boy who faced down the critics and became a Welsh rugby hero

Neil Jenkins at 50: The humble Valleys boy who faced down the critics and became a Welsh rugby hero

You sometimes wonder where all the years have gone.

Neil Jenkins turned 50 earlier this year.

Little fuss was made in the media — no special supplements in newspapers, no TV interviews, no ‘50 Neil Jenkins facts’, no nothing.

Which was probably exactly how the man himself liked it.

He is, after all, someone who once put together a run of 44 successful goal-kicks before declaring: “It’s my job. Praising me for it is like praising the postman for delivering 44 letters in a row.”

Well, OK. Jenkins didn’t have to rise at 3.30am and contend with the snappy Jack Russell in No. 48, for sure. But, still, what an achievement it was. Others would have phoned News at Ten to tell them of the news, just in case they missed it. But that was never Jenkins’ style.

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It seems only yesterday that he was kicking off the first-ever round of Heineken League matches for Pontypridd, a 19-year-old then, helping to inspire a side depleted by two sendings off to a 10-10 draw against Llanelli at Stradey Park.

A few months later, he was making his Wales debut against England in Cardiff.

He’s been involved at the top of Welsh rugby ever since, with few managing to endure quite like him.

Early in his playing career, few endured more criticism, as well.

But we’ll park that for the time being.

Consider, instead, how much Jenkins has seen in rugby. He was in the post-match function in Ballymore in 1991 when the bread rolls started flying, voices were raised and a scuffle broke out among touring Wales players. He was at Twickenham three years later when Ieuan Evans lifted the Five Nations Championship trophy, and he was in Le Bar Toulzac in September 1997 when all hell broke loose, with bottles and chairs flying as Brive and Pontypridd players skipped the peace talks and battled each other after the mother of on-pitch dust-ups earlier in the day.

There was his never-to-be forgotten role in South Africa with the Lions a year later and Wales win’ over England at Twickenham in 1999, with Jenkins securing victory with his conversion of Scott Gibbs’ stampeding try. He also was on the national coaching staff when Ruddockgate unfolded, still around when Gareth Jenkins departed as Wales coach and remained a constant throughout the Gatland era. Currently, he is a participant and a witness to the Pivac years.

Yet here’s the thing about Neil Jenkins.

The greatest thing about him isn’t that he could probably still shoot the eyebrows off a gnat from a thousand yards.

No, his superpower is that he’s totally unaffected by all that he’s achieved in his sport.

He’s at heart the same person this writer rang for a chat as he was breaking through with Pontypridd more than 30 autumns ago. He didn’t think excessively about himself back then, and it was the same last week when this interview was carried out, with Jenkins sitting in a limelight-free corner of his mother’s home in Church Village and talking without a hint of self-importance.

“I look back on it all with fond memories,” says Jenkins, Wales’ long-serving kicking coach who has also repeatedly filled the same role for the British and Irish Lions.

“I was incredibly lucky to play for Pontypridd, Cardiff and Celtic Warriors and represent Wales, the Lions and the Baa-baas. I did pretty much everything I wanted to do in terms of playing. Of course, you’d want to win more matches, but just to be part of those teams was pretty special.

“Since I finished playing I’ve worked with Gats (Warren Gatland), Wayne (Pivac) and many others I have a lot of respect for. It’s been brilliant and I consider myself lucky throughout my career to have been involved with people who’ve had different views of the game.”

Neil Jenkins has been at the heart of Welsh rugby for more than 30 years
(Image: Huw Evans Picture Agency)

Johnny Wilkinson once revealed he used to have a Peanuts cartoon on his wall in which Charlie Brown walks around saying he is really worried because he has nothing to to worry about.

It wasn’t the way life unfolded in Jenkins’ early days at Pontypridd.

“There were a few lively characters in the dressing room when Neil was coming through,” recalls Lynn Howells, Jenkins’ old coach with Wales, Pontypridd, Cardiff.

“Neil was a bit shy initially, until he found his voice.

“Then when he spoke people listened. He wouldn’t be afraid to tell you if he felt something was wrong.”

Time-travel back to that game with Llanelli in September 1990. For a player who’d celebrated his 19th birthday just two months earlier, it was a true eye opener. In his book, Life at No. 10, Jenkins tells of the atmosphere in the visitors’ dressing room as the seconds counted down to kick-off, with some players running through their mental routines. “I sat there goggle-eyed,” he writes. “Some were shouting and screaming, while Denzil Earland, our wing forward, slapped his face so hard that his cheeks turned raw red. I wonder what I had let myself in for, and it was a relief to get out on the pitch.”

Earland didn’t actually stay on the pitch long that day, with the flanker sent off for stamping within the first two minutes. Not long before half-time, he was joined in the dressing room by the piratical Jim Scarlett — well, he looked like a pirate, anyway, and, had he sailed the seven seas back in the day, not many would have risked arguing with him over how to divvy up any buried treasure — with the lock dismissed for kicking.

But Ponty’s six-man pack battled fearlessly to deny Llanelli victory.

“I’ll never forget that match, in the changing rooms and during the game,” says Jenkins.

“It was incredible to be part of.

“Pontypridd had a spirit about them. They weren’t the richest club in the world, but they had great camaraderie and would take on anyone. Sometimes it might spill over, but it was a different world in those days.

“That game alone showed me what we were all about as a team and what it meant to play for Pontypridd.”

Neil Jenkins in action for Pontypridd
(Image: Simon Ridgway)

He continues: “I always remember being stamped on against Glamorgan Wanderers in my second season. My old man always used to tell me I shouldn’t be on the floor anyway. Anyway, Denzil, my own player, did it. He was trying to rake someone, got it wrong and actually gave me a stitching. The old man said: ‘There’s a lesson for you. Don’t go on the floor. Be a bit smarter and get yourself out of there.’

“It took us a few years to make it right to the top, mixing it with the big clubs and winning stuff, but we got there in the end. We were probably one or two players short of maybe going to a European cup final or at least the latter stages of the competition.

“That said, we certainly made a name for ourselves on and off the pitch.

“Those were fantastic days, absolutely brilliant.”

What of the story of Earland, he of the early sending off against Llanelli and the accidental raking of Jenkins the following year, leaving a picture of himself in his car when he parked up in the tough area where he lived, a none-too-subtle warning to unsavoury sorts that theft of the said vehicle might provoke consequences that may or may not involve a measure of pain?

“It’s true,” laughs Jenkins.

“That’s what Denzil would do.

“He’d put a photo of himself in his car to make sure everyone knew it was his. That way, no-one would nick it.

“Denzil was great to know: as hard as nails and someone who played on the edge, but a great character.”

Those early years were formative for the youngster who had gone on to become Wales’ fly-half. “It didn’t matter what you did, whether you played for Wales, the Lions, the Baa-baas or any team, you’d always come back to Pontypridd and you were no different from anyone else,” he says.

That said, it wasn’t always easy for Jenkins.

Early in his career, he came in for heavy flak for not being a cross between Barry John and Phil Bennett, a fly-half in the so-called classical Welsh tradition, one who could perform five miracles before breakfast and a dozen more when beating England at the Arms Park in the afternoon.

It got slightly ridiculous, with some blaming Jenkins for all the ills in Welsh rugby at the time. Maybe some blamed him for the shutting down of Welsh pits, Paul Bodin’s penalty miss in the football against Romania in 1993 and the closure of The Horseshoe Pass amid the first snow of winter — we do not know.

Anyway, it came to a head when someone who clearly hadn’t been keeping up shouted at the No. 10 during a club game: “Oi, Neil Jenkins, you’re ruining Welsh rugby you are.”

How did Jenkins cope with it all? “I was incredibly lucky with my mother and father,” he says.

“My father was brilliant, almost like a psychologist, telling me not to worry about people like that.

“The point was, anyway, the game had moved on.

“I was never going to be twinkle-toed and constantly making breaks, but who actually did that at the time, anyway? Barry and Phil did it, but they played in the ’70s.

“My game was based on my ability to kick pretty well, pass accurately and I was mostly a decent tackler. I was about trying to control the game and bringing others into play.

“I’d like to think I was more than just a goal-kicker.

“People remember me for my kicking, and I did work incredibly hard at that area of my game.”

There then comes a claim that will surprise most who witnessed Jenkins in his pomp, propelling kicks out of the Sardis Road mud and through the sticks from 50 yards. “I was never really a natural kicker,” he says.

“It wasn’t something I did early in my career. When I was first picked for Wales, Paul Thorburn took the kicks. I wasn’t picked for my ability in front of goal. I was picked because I could play outside half and I was playing pretty well for Pontypridd.”

He continues: “I never really worried about criticism. I tried to use it as fuel. My father would tell me I needed to work harder and smarter than anyone else, and I’d put myself through the mill to get myself right physically and mentally for games.

“I used to train on Christmas Day, when I thought no-one else would be training. It was irrelevant if they were training that day: I didn’t believe they were and it gave me an edge. On Christmas Day, people put their feet up and spend time with their families, but I’d go training first, then I’d come back and spend time with my family.

“So I’d try to give myself an advantage mentally.

“I think being strong mentally was the strongest part of what I was about. It got me through all the stick.

“I’d always back myself and keep telling myself I was good enough.

“My father would always say: ‘There’s some good players around, but at the end of the day, who’s better than you?

“When someone’s being so positive, you actually start to believe what they are saying.

“I ended up playing 87 times for Wales and also for the British and Irish Lions. I couldn’t have been that bad a player.”

Neil Jenkins kicks Wales to glory against England in 1999

After Scott Gibbs scored his famous try at Wembley in 1999, the stadium was instantly washed with red-shirted delirium. On the Wales coaching bench Lynn Howells was one of the few who urged caution, turning to Graham Henry and saying: “We haven’t won yet. There’s still the conversion to come.”

Henry’s reply?

“He looked at me,” Howells recalls today, and said: ‘If you could choose one man in the world to kick this, who would it be?’”

It wasn’t a question that needed answering.

Seconds later the ball flew between the posts.

The Independent’s Chris Hewett wrote: “There was not the remotest possibility of Neil Jenkins missing a do-or-die conversion. Old Jug Ears would have slotted it home from his own 22, let alone England’s.”

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Time is ticking by and there are some quickfire questions to head towards the finish. Best player Jenkins ever faced? “Jonah Lomu.” Tick.

Best Welsh player? “Jonathan Davies.” Tick. The player Jenkins used to enjoy playing alongside the most? Without hesitation, he says: “Dale McIntosh.

“The Chief was fantastic, an iconic player at Ponty. He gave us a psychological edge because a lot of opposition teams would go into their shells when they knew he was playing. He was someone you’d always want on your side.”

There’s huge gratitude for the support Jenkins has received from those closest to him.

“I wouldn’t be where I am today without my family and close friends,” he says.

“Mam still lives in Church Village, Dad passed away.

“Then there’s my local rugby club and all my mates I’ve known for years. My uncles have been brilliant as well.

“I’m incredibly proud of where I come from and incredibly proud of my roots.”

It’s over to his ex-coach for the final word: “I don’t know anyone who has a bad word to say about Neil,” says Lynn Howells.

Stuff like that matters.

And it isn’t wrong.

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