Rugby Union: Humbled by the best of both worlds

Jonathan Davies hopes that this time the All Blacks' lessons will not be ignored
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The Independent Online
When the All Blacks go home, we will no doubt console ourselves by debating whether they are the best rugby team the world has ever seen. It'll make a lot of people feel better to think we've been duffed up by superhumans.

I won't make my mind up about their place in history until they finish the tour - and I'm writing this before yesterday's game against England - but one thing I am sure of is that we should spend less time marvelling and more time learning. I was in a Welsh team that lived through a similar New Zealand nightmare nine years ago and it still haunts me that the lessons the experience should have taught us were ignored.

Before this season, I had no doubts that the two greatest teams I had seen in my life were the Australian rugby league team who toured Britain in 1982 and the All Blacks of 1988.

I was barely into my career as a union player and had hardly seen rugby league when the '82 Kangaroos arrived. It didn't matter that it was a different game. Here was a new breed of exceptionally talented rugby player blended into an unstoppable unit. Players such as Wally Lewis, Mal Meninga, Peter Sterling, Brett Kenny and Gene Miles are still revered for the revolutionary effect they had on the game.

There is little doubt that no team of either code had ever carried such impact. They brought new standards to rugby league and, to a degree, they had an effect on union, or at least on that part of the union game that didn't have its nose in the air. Australia and New Zealand were glad of the education.

The impact was far greater in Australia where there was nothing like the union hatred for league as there was here. The two codes were willing to learn from each other and this assisted in their impressive progress. As for the Australian rugby league team who have just beaten Great Britain 2-1, they don't compare with the '82 team. This is unfair because the split in the game over there means that they were without some top players, but they are carrying on the same high standards that we must aspire to.

I can't say how much the All Blacks learned from the '82 Aussies, but the importance of ball retention did not escape them and they have mastered the art of allowing individual flair to flourish within a strong team framework. In Britain we seem incapable of that and ask players to subdue their flair in favour of teamwork.

In the 1987 World Cup, Wales had beaten England before playing New Zealand in the semi- final. They won 49-6. We went on to beat Australia in the play-off for the third place and then we won the Triple Crown the following season.

Some silly gentlemen then arranged for us to tour New Zealand in the summer of '88. I felt we had improved as a side since the World Cup but so had they. With players such as Buck Shelford, Steve McDowell, Joe Stanley, Grant Fox, John Kirwan and the Whettons they were the most awesome side I ever faced. They beat us 52-3 in the first Test and 54-9 in the second - those scores don't look too bad now - and we were aware that we had faced men from a different rugby planet.

Unfortunately, our leaders wouldn't listen to us. I offered to address the Welsh Rugby Union AGM and state the players' ideas for improving our game. Bob Norster and some other senior players offered to submit a report of what was needed. They ignored both offers. They had a better idea. They sacked the coaches, Tony Gray and Derek Quinnell, thereby absolving themselves from all responsibility.

It was ridiculous but that's been the pattern with all the home unions and we are now paying for all the complacent years. The All Blacks are doing what they did to us nine years ago. They are clinical, efficient, patient and every one of them is a decision-maker. The way they retain the ball is superb. Even when they kick they give themselves a good chance of regaining possession. They were professional long before we were and even now British rugby is scarcely worthy of the word.

It is not as easy to judge from off the field but I still need convincing that this lot are better than '88. They may be a better footballing side in the backs but I think the '88 pack were superior. The next couple of weeks will tell us. All our players can do is enjoy the experience, do their best to learn from it and then try telling the bosses.

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