Rugby Union:: Beaten Ruddock sounds the warning

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Aberavon. .12

Swansea. . .6

THE warning from over the Severn came across loud and clear - English rugby has seen nothing yet. When the Courage national leagues switch over to home and away fixtures next season, the burden of 18 matches are going to weigh quite heavy enough upon the shoulders of England's leading players. Just ask the Welsh.

Long before Swansea completed game 21, their penultimate Heineken League commitment, they appeared as jaded as their results over the past fortnight would suggest. Successive defeats at Pontypridd and now Aberavon have doubled their number of losses, effectively destroying any hopes they may have entertained of retaining the First Division title.

The marathon slog having finally taken its toll on a leading competitor, Llanelli can breathe a lot easier. After all, a point needed and a match in hand over their rivals affords them the luxury of a stroll to the finishing line. 'We had eight internationals in the side and played like a relegation team, ' Mike Ruddock, the Swansea coach, said at the mist-shrouded Talbot Athletic Ground on Saturday.

And there was a message, too, for English players before they tackle their new format. 'It makes it tougher. At the moment it's easier for them to tune into the opposition. But if you're playing league rugby week in and week out you can't keep peaking and there's the danger of becoming jaded. Even Llanelli, who are playing superbly at the moment, hit a bad patch at one stage.'

Which is what Swansea are now wallowing in and the bad news for Ruddock is that there is no respite because this Saturday his team face the Scarlets, their conquerors in last season's final, in the cup.

'The next few days are about rebuilding our game brick by brick for the semi-final, ' Ruddock said. 'We're paying the price for a hard pre-season tour to Canada, plus the Australian visit and all the other distractions since then. Everything that could go wrong over the past few weeks has gone wrong. We've had a flu epidemic and a couple of guys away in sevens tournaments as well. We're all feeling fairly shattered.'

Worse still, no sooner had Swansea taken the lead at Aberavon through a Jason Ball drop goal than Robert Jones was leaving the pitch with a shoulder joint injury. 'I'd say he has a 50- 50 chance of facing Llanelli' Ruddock said. The scrum-half had had to deal with a succession of ill-directed taps from the line-out and generally received scant protection - either from his forwards or the referee.

This suited Aberavon, who made a thorough nuisance of themselves and were level by the break. David Love next kicked a penalty, only his second in six attempts, and stretched the lead with a drop.

Finally, Swansea ran the ball for Steve Barclay to cross the line in injury time, though Tony Clement's pass was ruled forward. A marginal decision - but, as Ruddock pointed out, home and away the recovery margins are narrower.

Aberavon: Penalties Love 2, Thomas; Drop goal Love. Swansea: Penalty Ball; Drop goal Ball.

Aberavon: J Griffiths (N Griffiths, 72); A Bucknall, J Jardine (capt), G Thomas, A Graham; D Love, B Roach; M Griffiths, A Jones (I Evans, 71), K Allen, I Spender, M Evans, B Shenton, P Hamley, C Kinsey.

Swansea: D Weatherley; M Titley, J Ball, S Gibbs, S Barclay; A Clement, R Jones (J Greenslade, 27); I Buckett, R McBryde, K Colclough, R Moriarty, P Arnold, A Reynolds, S Davies (capt), R Webster.

Referee: C Jones (Newport).