Rugby Union: A chance to make winners out of sinners

Jonathan Davies looks forward to a season when the English clubs can glow with the flow
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The Independent Online
The English will start their season a week behind the Welsh, whose clubs were in action yesterday, but I suspect they're well ahead of the game and their domestic action promises to be much more fascinating thanks to a relatively calm and constructive summer and to the introduction of the sin-bin that was announced last week.

Whatever the rights and wrongs of the conflicts that have split Welsh rugby over the past few months, the effect has been to create an atmosphere in which it was difficult for anyone, players or clubs, to concentrate on the new season.

The uncertainty also made it hard for clubs to gauge how much money they could risk spending on strengthening their squads and, although there have been many internal transfers, more good players have been exported than imported as a result.

Cardiff are the exception. They still need a player or two but they have bought well and in Gregory Kacala, the big Polish back-row from Brive, I reckon they've got the bargain of the year. They've also been to France to play against Brive and Toulouse which should have been a great help.

We'll soon find out the respective strengths of the home countries when the first rounds of the European competitions get under way but, overall, the English clubs look in a more solid and stable state and their playing squads seem better equipped to face the demands of the season.

If I had to pick a championship winner before a point is scored, I would go for Bath who I think can recover the domination they had before professionalism arrived. I thought this even before Ieuan Evans joined them on Friday. They have taken a while to adjust to the new world, and made a mistake in relying on a couple of rugby league players last season, but they still have a classy pedigree and I believe we'll see them asserting that this season.

Leicester ought to come back much stronger after their collapse towards the end of last season when they struggled to qualify for the European Cup and they are not likely to make the same mistake again. Both Harlequins and Wasps appear to have done some successful tinkering with their squads and I have a sneaking feeling that Sale will be worth keeping an eye on. But, no doubt, most attention will be attracted by the big-spending promoted clubs, Newcastle and Richmond.

What they both need is a good start otherwise their wealthy backers and their fans will soon start panicking. Newcastle might suffer from international calls more than most but the most difficult problem for them and for Richmond is the relentless nature of life in the top grade. There will no longer be any easy games and it takes a while to get used to that hard fact.

Richmond have been busy in the transfer market and seem to have more Welshmen in their side than Cardiff. For that reason I shall be rooting for them but my friends are going to have to show consistently good form to make a mark in this company.

Much will also depend on which teams adapt most quickly to the new sin- bin rule that is being introduced as an experiment in the Allied Dunbar Premiership. The 10-minute sending-off will be used to combat the professional foul - i.e. killing the ball or going deliberately offside - that is hindering the progress of the British game.

The sin-bin is is a move I have been long calling for and the English game is sure to benefit if referees interpret it properly and impose it strictly. I'm only sorry the Welsh aren't following suit. They did try it a few years ago but abandoned it because referees used it as a soft alternative to sending players off and not as a weapon to keep play flowing. The game was still amateur then and there is no doubt that professionalism has produced faster rugby and, with it, more underhand tactics to hold up the attacking side.

Players must be prevented from stopping the action and I hope the referees won't hesitate to hammer home the lesson that using legitimate ways to defend is better than trying to do it with 14 men, or even fewer. The sin-bin forces teams to concentrate on improving their defence.

You only have to watch Southern Hemisphere rugby to see the benefits to the flow of the game of players rolling away from the ball at rucks. It is all to do with attitude and discipline. I thought the New Zealand- South African international last weekend was one of the best games I've seen. You didn't see much killing of the ball - at times they seemed more interested in killing each other.

In the past, I've complained about the free-scoring "basketball" games we see from down there as not being satisfying to the rugby purist. But the frightening thing about that match was that although the score-line was 55-35 in favour of the All Blacks the standard of defensive play was very high, especially from the South Africans. At the start of our season, it was a timely reminder of what we've got to be aiming at.

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