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Emotional farewell for hero Jenks

Jun 7 2004

The Western Mail


NEIL JENKINS brought the curtain down on his remarkable career as Wales said farewell to one of its great players and the most prolific points scorer the game has ever seen.

The world record holder took to the Millennium Stadium for his last game of rugby before hanging up the boots that have knocked over an astonishing 1,090 Test points and won him universal acclaim.

But it is the humility he has shown throughout his 13 years at the top, and again demonstrated today, that has earned him world-wide respect.

"It was an honour to walk out onto that pitch in front of the fans, but also a humbling experience," said the 32-year-old.

"I could never have imagined when I won my first cap (against England in 1991) that I would be given such a send-off so long afterwards. It was a moment that will always remain with me."

The day began with a reception that was as heartfelt as it was deserved. A standing ovation from the 24,000 who had come to watch as he walked onto the rugby field for the last time with his daughter Georgia and a guard of honour from some of the biggest names in rugby heralded his entrance and marked his departure after a thoroughly entertaining - and emotional - game.

"It's difficult to put into words what the day meant, but the reception from the supporters and the other players was brilliant and more than I could ever have asked for," he said.

"It was a pretty emotional moment walking out at the Millennium Stadium with people who have helped and supported my throughout my career and all I can say is thank you.

"The lap of honour at the end with Jason (Leonard) was tinged with sadness because I knew I had played my last game. There's no other feeling like running out in front of a big crowd before playing the game you love, especially when it's for Wales and in front of 73,000 at Cardiff.

"You don't get that buzz in any other job and to think that it won't happen again is very sad. It makes me wish I could play for ever. Obviously I can't and I know that this is the right time to have made this decision."

That decision has made many realise that perhaps Wales did not realise what it had, until now when it has gone.

There is little that there has not already been said about the Ginger Monster during a prolific career. A model professional, a unique goal-kicker and a genuinely nice guy, the plaudits are always the same, whoever you speak to and wherever you are in the rugby world.

But what the fans, admirers and those who simply wanted to say farewell to one of Welsh rugby's greatest players at the Millennium Stadium is that it is probably only now that Jenkins is truly appreciated.

An unsophisticated and selfless player, Jenks received more than his fair share of criticism for not fitting into the model of Welsh outside-halves following the likes of Barry John, Phil Bennett and Jonathan Davies.

Yet his two tours with the British Lions, in particular the historic tour of South Africa in 1997, and 87 caps for Wales was proof that his standing was never questioned by those within the game.

And the fact that so many stars, stretching across all aspects of Welsh life, including Wales striker Craig Bellamy and ex-Stereophonics drummer Stuart Cable, as well as fans turned up for yesterday's testimonial is evidence that the same can be said about Wales.

Having virtually rewritten the record books, while always considering himself privileged, the Valleys boy has finally gained almost cult status within his homeland and how dearly would we love to see him still knocking over the points with unerring regularity in the red No 10 jersey.

"I've always been happy to keep myself to myself as I always played for the love of the game. I never liked all the attention and everything else that comes with playing at the top level but I always understood it was part of the professional game," he said.

"It will be strange this summer not thinking about pre-season and planning for what's ahead, but I'm looking forward to putting my feet up now, spending plenty of time with the family and perhaps getting my golf handicap down."

For many Welsh fans yesterday was a dream come true as the Millennium Stadium hosted an entire team of Welsh No 10s in dedication to Jenkins on his big day

Lining up in the Welsh jerseys were several players who have played key figures throughout Jenkins' career. Childhood friend Paul John, who he had played alongside for more than 20 years, and Dale "The Chief" McIntosh represented his unbreakable ties to Sardis Road.

Even David Bishop, Nigel Davies and Paul Moriarty dusted the cobwebs off their boots to take the field, while the likes of Scott Quinnell, Scott Gibbs and Rob Howley embodied many of his greatest moments with Wales and the British Lions.

Finally the inclusion of youngsters such as Lee Thomas and Mathew Nuthall represented the work he did with the Celtic Warriors this season and pointed to a possible future career coaching.

Howley and Quinnell were both given an especially rousing reception by a crowd perhaps hoping to convince them to return to the Millennium Stadium in the near future for Wales, while even Jason Leonard, the scourge of so many Welsh scrums in the past, was blessed with a fanfare entrance in acknowledgement of his 114 caps.

But the day, quite obviously was all about Jenkins and even the rugby, in truth, was incidental to the sense of occasion.

Considering that the age of several players matched their number of caps, and waist-line in some cases, the game was played with an easy going spirit that produced no fewer than 24 tries

It took a mere 61 seconds for the scoring to begin when Neil Boobyer scuttled over from Chris Wyatt's pass after Howley and the man himself, Jenkins, relived the old days by combining to launch a counter-attack from the halfway line.

Jenkins missed the conversion, met with a mixture of surprise and humour, before banging over 10 with the same methodical approach that smashed every record possible.

That is why

"Discussions are under way with the Welsh Rugby Union about the possibility of coaching but we will have to see what happens.

"They're in Argentina now so we will wait until they are back, but it would something I would love to do."

Certainly all of those at the Millennium Stadium yesterday will be hoping that they have not seen the last of the man they affectionately called "The Ginger Monster."

Neil Jenkins XV: J Thomas; N Boobyer, A Bateman, S Gibbs, R Mustoe; N Jenkins, R Howley; J Davies, B Williams, B Evans, D McIntosh, C Wyatt, E Lewis, S Quinnell, E Lewis.

Jason Leonard XV: K Logan; N Beal, J Leslie, N Greenstock, J Sleightholme; P Burke, J Grindall; J Leonard, D West, D Garforth, B Davison, K Chesney, K Jones, A Vos, N Back.