Lions Legend: The story of Neil Jenkins

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Neil Jenkins 1997

Neil Jenkins will forever be remembered for his achievements with the 1997 Lions.

The Welshman won 87 caps for his country and became the first player to break the 1,000 point barrier in international rugby yet it is his performances for Britain and Ireland’s elite in South Africa that first spring to mind when recalling his impressive career.

The Pontypridd product made his name as a fly-half but he starred in the No.15 shirt for the Lions as Sir Ian McGeechan’s men beat the Springboks in the first Lions tour of the professional era.

While Scott Gibbs’ tackle on Andre Snyman or his barreling run through Os du Randt, or perhaps more likely Jeremy Guscott’s dramatic drop goal, stand out as the iconic images of that ‘97 Test series, memories of Jenkins continually bisecting the uprights cannot be far behind.

British & Irish Lions profile: Lion #665 Neil Jenkins

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Jenkins scored 41 points against the then world champions, kicking five penalties during the first Test triumph in Cape Town and five more in the following week’s victory in Durban.

While the South Africans continually faltered with the boot, Jenkins was the rock upon which a winning foundation was built for the Lions.

Arguably the greatest goal kicker the world has ever seen, Jenkins kept the scoreboard ticking over, never allowing the Boks to feel at ease at any stage during the first two internationals.

Neil Jenkins

With Jenkins having played a major role in the 25-16 win in the opening rubber, the second Test summed up his importance to the Lions almost perfectly.

Chasing only their second series victory in South Africa in the 20th century, the Lions were outscored by three tries to nil at King’s Park.

The Boks were hitting back and the series seemed destined to go to the wire. But thanks to Jenkins, a third Test decider wouldn’t be necessary.

Despite the most intense pressure, Jenkins hit the target with each and every one of his five attempts at goal. No matter the distance or the angle, when skipper Martin Johnson pointed to the posts, Jenkins did exactly what was asked.

His handful penalties kept the Lions in the game, while their opponents tried three different kickers yet finished with a record of no successes from six attempts during the Lions’ 18-15 win.

It may well be an overly simplistic analysis but, in short, Jenkins was the difference between the two sides that day. Had he been playing for the Boks then they would have been out of sight shortly after half-time.

If Jenkins had been a South African, the chances are we would not be looking back upon that particular Lions Tour with so many happy memories.

Following his successes in ‘97, Jenkins toured once more with the Lions, coming on as a replacement in the second Test against Australia in Melbourne in 2001. In total, he scored 142 points for the Lions across 12 appearances on two tours.

Jenkins played his final game for Wales in November 2002, some 11 years after making his international debut against England as a fresh-faced 19-year-old.

He finished his career with 1,049 points in Test matches for the Lions and for Wales, a record only surpassed by his former Lions team-mate Jonny Wilkinson and New Zealand’s Dan Carter.

Neil Jenkins

After retiring from the international game having failed to make the cut for the Welsh squad for the 2003 World Cup, Jenkins continued to play club rugby for a further season – a season in which he set another record with 44 successful kicks at goal without failure for the now defunct Celtic Warriors.

Jenkins joined the Welsh coaching staff in 2004, working as a kicking skills coach with the WRU Academies, before graduating to a position of skills coach within the senior set up.

He continued his long association with the Lions by working with McGeechan once more, this time as kicking coach on the 2009 Tour to South Africa.

That is a role he has since reprised on another three occasions, touring with the Lions in 2013, 2017 and 2021 as Warren Gatland’s right hand man in Australia, New Zealand and South Africa.

Here’s what the man himself thought of his experiences as a Lion…

On almost missing out on the 1997 tour through injury:

“Our final Five Nations Championship match of the 1997 campaign should have been a moment of personal triumph for me: it was 50th cap for Wales and I had become the youngest player in the history of the international game to achieve the feat. Ten minutes after the start, however, I was on my way to hospital. Phil de Glanville made a break and I tackled him. He offloaded the ball but it went loose and I dived on it with my arm stretched out. England’s flanker Richard Hill came in and caught my arm accidentally with his boot. I felt a sharp pain and my elbow went dead.

“The x-ray showed that I had broken my arm. The break was a clear one and there was a large gap that had to be pinned. As far as I was concerned, any hope I had of going to South Africa had vanished and I just wanted to be left alone. I was due to be flying out with Wales to the Hong Kong Sevens the following day, but instead I was going to go under the knife in a Swansea hospital. I tried to talk my way out of having the operation, but I was told I was wasting my time. The doctor did not mince his words: he told me that I would be out of action for a long time and that I would probably not make South Africa. A surgeon came to see and he confirmed the original diagnosis: that I would be fortunate to be playing within four months. I had less than eight weeks to prove my fitness for South Africa – assuming I was selected.”

Jeremy Guscott, Martin Johnson and Neil Jenkins 1997

On learning of the Lions call:

“On the day the Lion squad was announced, Cath (Jenkins’ wife) and I were going to the Ideal Homes Exhibition in London. The players who were going to South Africa were to be informed by letter, so I hoped the mail would come before we left for the train. It did and Cath picked it up. She said there was nothing from the Lions, just a letter from a firm of solicitors. I took that to be about an impending court case I was involved in following an incident in a Swansea nightclub earlier in the year. She opened the letter and I asked, fairly forlornly, what it was about. She put on a face and then burst out laughing: ‘Only that you are to spend two months in South Africa’. It took some moments to sink in, not just because of my injury but because this was the pinnacle of my ambition, what I had worked so hard for. This was the ultimate honour – and we were being paid. I would happily have paid my own way.”

On selection for the first Test in ’97:

“As the first Test loomed, so the nerves starting building up. The first cause for anxiety was the announcement of the side, and the management decided to post a letter under the door of each player so that everyone would have a few moments to come to terms with whether he was in or out. I was sharing a room with Tony Underwood and he was up early in the morning to open his letter. He gave me the thumbs down and his hurt was obvious. Tony asked me if I wanted to open my envelope but I preferred to lie in bed. I had reasoned that if Tony had been left out I had probably suffered the same fate, because on Wales tours Test players share rooms before an international. Tony slipped out of the room and I eventually plucked up the courage to find out whether it was time to smile or grimace. The message was simple and is as clear to me now as it was then: ‘You have been chosen to play in the first Test against South Africa. Good luck’.”

Neil Jenkins

On pre-match preparations:

“The night before the first Test, I went out to an Italian restaurant down the road from our hotel with Ieuan Evans and Tom Smith. We walked the few hundred yards in our tracksuits with passers-by wishing us well and passed a peaceful coupld of hours. Tom and I were playing in our first Test for the Lions, but Ieuan was an old hand having been on the 1989 and 1993 tours and he was able to divert our minds away from rugby. Although it was to be Ieuan’s last match because he picked up a groin injury the following day, Tom and I kept up the routine before the following Tests.

“I snatched only a few hours’ sleep the night before the first Test. It was going to be the biggest day of my life. Playing for Wales had always meant everything to me, but this was something else again. What made it even more special was that I was not going to go into a match against a powerful team like South Africa hoping that we could keep the score down. We were thinking about nothing but victory.”

On pre-match nerves:

“I got up late on the day of the game to give my legs a rest. They felt like jelly anyway. I made sure fitness coach Dave McLean was not around and tucked into beans and chips. I have never been able to get my head around dietary advice: I am not into greens and pasta. I wanted to stick to my normal routine to help keep the nerves at bay, but as the minutes ticked away, the tension grew.

“I was terrible in the dressing room, literally sick with nerves. I was even whiter than the day before and at such moments you wonder why you put yourself through such an ordeal. I thought enviously of my friends sitting down to watch the match on television, their hands clasped around a pint glass with nothing to worry about except whether they had a good view.

“My first task was to kick off and I put the ball out of play on the full. I looked up to the skies and pleaded, ‘Not today, of all days’. South Africa took the lead with an early penalty but I had the chance to equalise a few minutes later. As fate would have it, the kick was virtually from the same spot where I had practised the previous Thursday. I had missed every one then because my left foot had slipped on the soft ground as I was about to kick. I took a number of deep breaths and resolved to ram my left foot down hard. I had never been so relived to see a kick go over. The pressure was lifted, the nerves was gone. I started to revel in the moment.”

Neil Jenkins

On kicking the Lions to victory in South Africa:

“When the moment of reckoning came, I was not in South Africa but on Cae Fardre, the field near the house where I was brought up in South Wales and where I spent many hundreds of hours alone with a rugby ball. The irony was that when I was a teenager at Cae Fardre I imagined I was at Cardiff Arms Park, having been given the kick that would beat England, 50,000 souls watching me with bated breath. I never missed, but in South Africa the dream became reality; the venue was different and I never had a kick to win a match, but in Durban I had one attempt to tie the score and keep us in the game.

“No noise, no distractions, no pressure. I took a few deep breaths and shook my arms as they hung straight down in front of me, and I could hear the roar of the crowd as the ball went over. I could even hear a strain of Bread of Heaven. And I was in heaven.”

On that series-winning feeling in Durban:

“King’s Park erupted into a sea of red and white and an orgy of unconfined joy. It was like being back at the Arms Park in the 1970s. I had never thought anything would beat the feelings of elation I had when I won my first cap and when Pontypridd won the league. I was wrong. To be in Durban that Saturday was to be in heaven.”

On touring with the Lions as a coach in 2009:

“The hardest thing for me about that tour was its ending. The squad and management had been together for eight weeks on what was, for me, the journey of a lifetime. Part of me wanted it never to end. It was unlike being with Pontypridd or Wales because the separation at the end was permanent: we would never be together as a group again, apart from the occasional reunion. For the first few days when I returned home, it was as if something was missing.”

Neil Jenkins’ factfile

Date of birth: July 8, 1963
Clubs: Pontypridd, Cardiff, Celtic Warriors
International caps: Wales 87
Height: 5ft 10in (1.78m)
Weight: 13 stone 8lbs (86kg)

Lions debut: Versus Eastern Province Invitational XV, May 24, 1997
Lions Tests: 4 (All three Tests in SA in 1997 and 2nd Test in Aus in 2001)
Lions non-Test appearances: 8
Total Lions appearances: 12 ( 8 in 1997, 4 in 2001)
Lions points: 142 (two tries, 27 conversions, 26 penalties)
Final Lions appearance: Versus Australia, Melbourne, July 7, 2001

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