Jonathan Davies: A break that no one in game wants

League is showing the way for mobility and entertainment
Click to follow
The Independent Online

The new rugby season got off to a low-key start at Cardiff on Friday night because Munster, the European champions, turned up minus 11 of their international stars. In their wisdom, the Irish Rugby Union decided that their players needed a full 11-week break following their tough summer tour of Australia and New Zealand.

That means that players such as Paul O'Connell and Ronan O'Gara will miss the first four weeks of the season. I understand that they are not very happy about it, and I don't blame them - especially as they had to watch their second string lose 22-13 to Cardiff.

I can understand unions being protective of their players, but surely those players are entitled to make their own decisions about when to play or not. Some players respond to a lay-off, others prefer regular rugby. It should be an individual choice.

The result of this directive was that Cardiff had a lower gate than they would have expected if the real Munster had turned up, and the league's new sponsors, the Magners cider people, must be wondering what they hell they've invested in.

It is true that Munster have a a strong squad, but if Cardiff's handling had been better and they hadn't made two weird decisions to kick penalties instead of going for tries it would have been a far heavier defeat.

It was not a good start to a season in which we are looking for vast all-round improvements to our attacking game. Whether or not you are a rugby league fan, last weekend's Challenge Cup final would have surely whetted your appetite for the forthcoming union season.

I know they are different games, but there were lessons to be learned from the way St Helens and Huddersfield gave Twickenham the benefit of a greatly entertaining match. They were not only extremely good defensively, they made the most of their opportunities, and that's the main area in which our union game is deficient.

We have to strive for improve-ments in our creative attacking at both club and international levels if the new season is going to provide adequate preparations for next year's World Cup. The basic difference in the way league and union teams attack is that in union players tend to look for contact rather than space, and lack the instinct and confidence to seek out openings and go for them.

When union sides do create openings they tend to put in one or two drives too many and the chance vanishes. It is a matter of seizing openings immediately they occur, and at Twickenham last week the Lance Todd Trophy winner, Sean Long, gave a masterclass in the art of exploiting what is in front of you.

If league teams have a 3-2 overlap when going down the short side, even if there is only 10 yards to work in, they'll go for it - union teams probably wouldn't. It is a matter of approach and attitude, and when you've been concentrating on bulk and collision power for so long it's not easy to change.

Power is still important, but nimble feet and mobility are going to be the more telling factors in the World Cup. As we will no doubt see in November, it's the mobility factor that gives New Zealand the edge over everyone at the moment.

The only European team who can begin to compare with the All Blacks in that department are France. It's in the nature of even their biggest men to get around the park in search of opportunities to snap up.

The Challenge Cup also produced a couple of lessons that football should copy. Firstly, how to react when injured. St Helens' Jon Wilkin had his nose smashed after 10 minutes and had to be forced off the pitch time after time for treatment. What commitment, what a performance.

Secondly, how to cope with players writhing around on the pitch. In league, they just carry on playing. In football, play is continually being stopped. If they kept going it would maintain the flow and sharply reduce the play-acting.

If a player is shamming and his team concede a goal while he's receiving treatment, they will soon persuade him not to do it again.