Rugby Union: After rest and work, let's play

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The Independent Online
WITH THE season just a week away the players are as mystified as you the public as to how our fixture list will look in a month's time, let alone through the rest of the year.

During the summer we have had plenty of tantalising propositions put forward, none of which now look likely to happen. Don't get me wrong, the Premiership is an enjoyable and compelling spectacle, but the chance to play in either an Anglo-French or a British league would certainly have been readily accepted by most of us players.

At present Swansea and Cardiff are on our fixture list and it is ties like this which whet the appetite of all involved in the sport. More's the pity that the likes of Toulouse, Brive or Edinburgh won't be visiting Newcastle as well.

It is hard to talk with any conviction of who is right or wrong in all the tedious rounds of dialogue as only those who are privvy to them really knows what is going on, but it seems to me pretty clear that little can be achieved in the corridors of power while people continue to lack trust and continue to fail to work to convert a common goal into a common strategy.

Everyone clearly has the shared ambition of a thriving and successful sport. All but a few believe that club rugby is the way forward in England, and those clubs quite rightfully believe they should be leaders in their own destiny. So let them control domestic rugby and all the monies involved and the Union can control international rugby and all those monies. I am sorry this sounds naive and simplified but I really believe it is that straightforward.

Talks continue, though, and as players we continue to keep our heads down while so much uncertainty abounds and threats of splits and boycotts lurk around the corner. All you can do is live week by week, focus on your training and keep praying that it will all be resolved.

Here in Newcastle it has been business as usual with trainer Steve Black. The club shut down for a couple of weeks after our Sanyo Cup triumph over a powerful World XV at the end of May. From then up until the beginning of August we had a fitness or strength session every day at locations varying from the local David Lloyd leisure centre to the beach at Tynemouth. Any holiday left to any individual was taken at this time.

It was only at the beginning of August that we began to train with the ball in hand. Several new faces joined us, all young and all English, save for our token Welshman Alan Chilten called up from our youth squad to provide back-up to Gary Armstrong at scrum-half.

Great things are expected of him and the others. Twelve months ago names like Jonny Wilkinson and Stuart Legg went unrecognised. We are hoping the names of Peter Massey (full-back), Michael Wood (winger), Ian Teel (prop) and some chap called Marius Hurter, a prop from South Africa, will become as well known in 12 months time.

One aspect of professional rugby is that players go as well as come and it has been sad to say goodbye to players like Tim Stimpson and Pat Lam who had become good friends. Now that friendship must be forgotten for 160 minutes every season. However, we can never forget the memories we share from last season when together we won the Premiership.

Last year's success obviously brings a whole new outlook to the start of this season, as opposed to last. It is very different defending a title as opposed to going out to win it. This is something which marked Bath out as a great side when they were able to do it year in year out up until 1996.

We desperately want to carry that mantle, to be able to play with that extra conviction gained from last year's experiences. The failure of Wasps to do so last season shows the fine line between winning a championship and fighting a relegation battle, let alone securing a mid-table finish.

The mental side of this challenge is so important and that is why it is vital to start the season well. There is no room for any lack of self-belief to creep in, and winning is a perfect antidote to any doubt.

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