Friday 28 July 2017

Rhys Priestland: A star rises from the Valleys

Rhys Priestland
Rhys Priestland

IT may enjoy widespread popularity now, but rugby was a fringe sport in Ireland back in the 1980s.

Beyond the Five Nations matches, there was precious little of it on television, which is why BBC's 'Rugby Special' programme was so popular among Ireland's coverage-starved rugby followers and Welsh rugby was the big draw.

Neath versus Swansea, Cardiff versus Pontypool, the Welsh derbies were skilful, intense affairs and though Wales struggled that decade following the glories of the 1970s, their club game was in excellent repair.

For this young Nottingham Forest supporter, the bright red of Llanelli held the greatest appeal and, in our eyes, out-half Gary Pearce was their Tony Woodcock. A bull of an out-half (think Barry McGann), Pearce may have been bursting out of the tight shorts in vogue at the time, but he put his backside to good effect bursting defenders and was an exquisite striker of a rugby ball.

Pearce only won three caps for his country, in 1981 and '82, as the likes of Gareth and Jonathan Davies were rated ahead of him, but he was a superb out-half for Llanelli -- a club that has a long tradition of producing quality No 10s.

These include probably the three greatest out-halves to come out of the Principality -- Barry John, Phil Bennett and Davies (Jonathan) -- and now a young player has emerged who many Welsh rugby followers believe has the game to be classed in the same bracket as that Holy Trinity.

Rhys Priestland turns 25 in a few weeks and the reason his explosion into a player of world-class ability has been delayed until the past few months is largely down to the presence of another Wales and Llanelli (now in their professional Scarlets guise) great, Stephen Jones.

Priestland has usurped the 33-year-old Jones for club and country and, while Jones' career accomplishments (Wales centurion and two-time Lion) have established his legacy, the young pretender is seen as the best out-half prospect to come out of Wales for many years.

He is a different type of player to Jones -- he is taller, faster and a silkier runner -- but carries the same capacity to control a match and his impact on the World Cup was such that he was named in many pundits' (including RTE's) team of the tournament.

Having made his debut off the bench at full-back against Scotland last February, Warren Gatland started Priestland for the first time when Jones pulled a calf muscle six minutes before the August World Cup warm-up against England at Twickenham.

In years to come, it could be seen as a seminal moment in Welsh rugby history. It was a nerve-wracking experience for a player who had not practised in the position the previous week and was not sure of the calls.

"I was on the way in from the warm-up," recalled Priestland, "and the next thing I am playing at 10. It was a surreal few minutes. I knew them (the calls), but my mind went a bit blank."

It didn't matter, Priestland had arrived. The battle for the Wales No 10 jersey had been expected to be a shoot-out between Jones and James Hook but Priestland's form was irrepressible and he typified the youthful and fearless energy of a Welsh campaign that nearly brought them to a World Cup final against the All Blacks.

Following his performance in the quarter-final win over Ireland, even Jones was forced to concede that his rival was a little bit special.

"I thought he was outstanding, it's as simple as that," said Jones. "His distribution was excellent; his balance in his game was top drawer. Defensively he was sound and he controlled the game very well, so I thought he had a great game. He is a very cool customer. He's an intelligent man. He works hard on his game. He's a good professional."

After picking up a shoulder injury against Ireland, Priestland missed the semi-final against France, when Hook started. Sam Warburton was sent off and Jones came off the bench, but failed to front up for the drop goal that would have taken the Welsh through.

Even though Priestland had missed with his own match-winning effort against South Africa in the opening pool game, there was a sense of frustration among Welsh supporters for there was no doubting that they were a different, less potent, team without their new star.

Priestland's form continued on his return, notably with a man of the match display in the thumping win away to Northampton when he tormented the Saints with his kicking out of hand and chased 70 metres to win the race for a critical try. Wales defence coach Shaun Edwards was in the studio that day and could not contain his World Cup sense of 'what if' as he watched Priestland run the show.

Now the comparisons are coming thick and fast. He has been likened to a 'young Ronan O'Gara,' whom he faces on Saturday when the Scarlets host Munster in the Heineken Cup.

However, while they are of a similar build, he has still to acquire the Irishman's tactical nous and place-kicking prowess and presents a different running threat and in defence.

Others compare him to former World Cup-winning Wallabies out-half Stephen Larkham, a similarly styled runner, but Priestland looks the better kicker out of hand. And, then there is John, the Wales out-half all others -- from Pearce to Davies, from Neil Jenkins to Hook and Jones -- are measured against.

It is early days but in build, style and game-breaking skill, there are signs that Priestland can come closer to the legendary playmaker than anything Wales have uncovered since John retired prematurely in 1972 aged only 27.

And the great one concurs.

"Rhys Priestland was handed the keys to the Welsh No 10 role in New Zealand and he can have it for as long as he wants it," said John. "He is cool, has a very good mind tactically and is able to control the game, Priestland is going to be running the Welsh show for years to come."

Munster face a daunting challenge against the Scarlets this weekend and containing the momentum building behind their young out-half will be a critical part of it -- the Llanelli and Wales out-half production line is as potent as ever.

Priestland factfile

Age: 24

Height: 6'1"

Weight: 13st 9lbs

Position: Out-half/full-back

Wales caps: 10

Wales points: 50

HC caps: 15

HC points: 83

Style: An all-rounder, Priestland has the boot to put teams on the back foot but likes to run with the ball also and has the speed to make it count, as he showed when chasing 70 metres to score a crucial try in the Scarlets' Heineken Cup win over Northampton.

Twitter followers: 14,903

Typical tweet: When asked if he knew any good drinking games, Priestland replied: "A good game is drink red wine till you spew all over yourself and then cover yourself in shaving foam".

Irish Independent

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