Rugby Union: Less rugby means more quality

Jonathan Davies says standards will rise with fewer fixtures and fitter players
Click to follow
The Independent Online
If we genuinely want to improve British rugby, and produce players good enough to measure up to any others in the world, we all have to face up to the sort of pain and controversy that Welsh rugby is going through at the moment.

I thought Lawrence Dallaglio was spot on last week when he said that league rugby in England would have to go through the same harsh pruning policy before they get it right.

Players have been accused of whingeing about playing too much rugby, but that is not surprising considering that we are coming to the final stages of the most demanding and confusing season in rugby history. The players know that they are not going to achieve the desired improvement in standard unless they play higher quality games less often instead of lower quality games more often.

Anyone who plays in a professional team game in Britain soon gets the message that our sporting authorities like nothing better than a crammed fixture list. If they go four days without hearing a turnstile click, they start panicking. So whether you are a football, cricket or rugby player you face a future in which play takes a clear priority over practice. And people still wonder why our players are not as good as those from other countries.

I've been around sport long enough to realise that success is based on a recipe of 90 per cent preparation and 10 per cent participation. If you get that balance wrong you are not likely to get the maximum in performance from your players. Because professional rugby union is still in its teething stage, we have a chance to lay down a proper foundation for improvement.

That is why the Welsh Rugby Union was right to act swiftly to reduce the size of our top league from 12 teams to eight, thereby cutting down on the number of meaningless games we play. It is very unfair on the clubs who will immediately suffer without adequate warning but I am convinced that Welsh rugby could not afford even one more season at our present slow rate of development.

It is much easier for England. They need to prune as well but at least their First Division of 12 will be strengthened next season because of the quality of the two teams being promoted. That gives them the breathing space to establish future division sizes and for every club to be aware of what's in store.

It is so cruel for Llandovery to be told that the promotion they had worked so hard to achieve is not going to happen. I come from a small- club background myself and I sympathise. Similarly, there are now teams such as Neath who were comfortably placed and who now find themselves in a relegation battle.

For Welsh rugby as a whole, the end result will be worthwhile - an eight- team top division in which standards will rise quickly and to which the better players will gravitate. Too many youngsters are staying with lower-league clubs because they are well paid, probably more than the club could afford, and enjoy easy training and games that are mostly undemanding.

If they want to earn a living in future they must move to a better club where they will have to earn their money in a harsher, more professional environment. They are not going to improve otherwise. It is a similar story with the number of matches we play. Many players say they would prefer to play an extra match a week than train. I bet they would! Training is harder than playing or, at least, it should be.

The most professional competition I've ever played in was the Australian Rugby League. We never played more than once a week but in between we practised our skills and sharpened our fitness in a furiously competitive atmosphere that made you ache for Saturday.

When we get to structuring our seasons properly, one game per week should be the maximum. The result will be better rugby, more committed teams and much higher value for the paying spectator. It needs brutal steps to get there but it will be worth it. Certainly, there's no other way we are going to catch up with our friends from the south.