By 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 last weekend’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.