How Melon made a real prune out of O’Gara!

The Rugby Paper - - News / Championship - PETER JACK­SON

The long­est-serv­ing in­ter­na­tional prop of all reaches the end of a very long road this af­ter­noon, one paved with a hat-trick of Grand Slams. Only one player in the pro­fes­sional era has won more, French lock Fa­bien Pelous.

That is but one fact that sets Gethin Jenk­ins apart. There are many more and one of the most strik­ing would have stopped one of Ire­land’s most rev­ered play­ers in his tracks when word of the Welsh­man’s re­tire­ment reached him in Dublin the other day.

Ro­nan O’Gara can never for­get his un­wit­ting role in find­ing him­self the stooge for what many would con­sider Jenk­ins’ finest mo­ment, a tow­er­ing claim in it­self con­sid­er­ing that his ca­reer spanned four World Cups and 134 Tests which puts him joint-fourth on the all-time list along­side Ser­gio Parisse.

The mem­ory that would have flashed through O’Gara’s mind like a bad dream is of some­thing the like of which no­body had wit­nessed be­fore, a prop out­wit­ting a fly half. It hap­pened dur­ing the open­ing ex­changes of Jenk­ins’ first Slam, early enough to have put Wales in charge of their de­cider against Ire­land in Cardiff.

O’Gara, now fur­ther­ing his coach­ing ca­reer with the Cru­saders, was back home pro­mot­ing Ire­land’s au­tumn cam­paign when Jenk­ins let it be known that to­day’s match at the Arms Park for Cardiff Blues against Ze­bre would be his last. The video would have whirled around in his mind of a mo­ment recorded for pos­ter­ity in his au­to­bi­og­ra­phy.

“Af­ter 17 min­utes I was charged down by Gethin Jenk­ins and he con­trolled the ball bril­liantly to score their first try,’’ O’Gara wrote. “For an out-half be­ing charged down is an oc­cu­pa­tional hazard but you never ex­pected it to hap­pen against a loose­head prop.

“I never saw him com­ing. The usual set-up is that a for­ward would screen the kicker when he’s mak­ing a clear­ing kick but Jenk­ins dodged my pro­tec­tion, man­aged to stay on­side and caught me a beaut. He hasn’t stopped thank­ing me since.’’

The try had such a de­mor­al­is­ing ef­fect on the Ir­ish that Wales were able to com­plete the most en­ter­pris­ing of their 21st cen­tury Slams in cruise-con­trol. The speed of thought and move­ment which made the try pos­si­ble would have left the old-fash­ioned props in dan­ger of get­ting a bad name.

Jenk­ins, good enough to op­er­ate on ei­ther side of the scrum, never lacked any grunt but he could dress it up with a splash of glitz when­ever the sit­u­a­tion de­manded. In many ways he was the epit­ome of the all-danc­ing mod­ern loose­head, com­plete with fly-pa­per hands and a turn of pace, as O’Gara dis­cov­ered to his cost.

He stood the hard­est test of all, of time, over the course of 18 years – from 20 to 38. Un­til the old calf prob­lems brought his Test ca­reer to an end in 2016, Jenk­ins had been on the bat­ter with Wales for 14 years. When he be­gan, Eng­land had a front row with a com­bined age not far short of a cen­tury – Ja­son Leonard, Do­rian West and Ju­lian White.

Peter Clo­hessy was still claw­ing his way from scrum to scrum for Ire­land; France had their very own Elvis, as in Ver­meulen, and the Les­lie brothers headed Scot­land’s Kiwi brigade along­side Bren­dan Laney and Glenn Met­calfe. It was that long ago.

No Welsh player could have tried harder to end the one-sided run against the All Blacks, or more of­ten, 14 times in all in­clud­ing three Tests for the Lions dur­ing the calami­tous se­ries in 2005. When he first lined up against them, 16 years ago, Re­gan King, later of the Scar­lets, made his one ap­pear­ance in a team cap­tained by Taine Ran­dell.

Wales lost them all but their ven­er­a­ble loose­head was in the team that came clos­est to turn­ing the tide of his­tory, at the Mil­len­nium Sta­dium 14 years ago. Wales, ahead at half-time, lost by a point, un­done by a daz­zling solo try from Joe Roko­coko.

When the dust set­tles af­ter to­day’s last hur­rah and the Blues faith­ful have given him the long­est of stand­ing ova­tions, ‘Melon’ will in­evitably re­flect on the chance of a life­time which slipped away in the trau­matic fi­nale to Wales’ 2011 World Cup in New Zealand.

Even al­low­ing for Sam War­bur­ton’s early red card and the more dam­ag­ing loss of Adam Jones, they know they ought to have beaten France in the semi-fi­nal at Eden Park. They know they ought to have been back there the fol­low­ing week for the fi­nal and with the All Blacks in a state of high ner­vous anx­i­ety who knows what would have hap­pened?

On re­flec­tion maybe it’s best to look ahead not back, to let that par­tic­u­lar sleep­ing dog lie. No point pan­der­ing to the side of Jenk­ins’ na­ture which prompted some col­leagues to char­ac­terise him as ‘Mr Grumpy’, least of all at a time when he has so many rea­sons for cel­e­brat­ing a ca­reer which, for ex­cel­lence and longevity, will take a lot of match­ing, let alone sur­pass­ing.

PIC­TURE: Getty Im­ages

Time­less: Gethin Jenk­ins play­ing for Wales

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