Rugby Union: Packing down for prosperity: Steve Bale on the crush of rugby union fixtures in Wales where the busy Heineken League kicks off on Saturday

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The Independent Online
THERE is a scarcely decent interval between the opening of the season and the kick-off of English rugby union's Courage Clubs' Championship, on 19 September, though even then the allocation of league fixtures through an overcrowded season is the rugby equivalent of getting a quart of Courage Best into a pint pot.

But if it is bad in England, it is far worse in Wales, where the Heineken National League begins at the very beginning on Saturday. There is not a weekend to lose, since the expansion of the league from four divisions of 10 to four of 12 means there are now 22 rounds of fixtures to fulfil. For this season only the English First Division remains at 13 clubs playing 12 fixtures, but next season home and away will increase the fixtures to 18 with the clubs reduced to 10.

The motivation for all this is financial: in these days when friendlies have ceased to have either relevance or crowds, treasurers need as many pay-days as they can get. This was certainly the inspiration for adding to the Welsh players' burden, but it does not stop there. The long-overdue development of a full representative structure from the national team through Wales B and a development squad to the Under-21s has left the Welsh fixtures list as congested as the Severn Bridge on a bank holiday.

It is evident, and is already the subject of debate, that almost as soon as the Heineken League has been enlarged it ought to be contracted again. Whether it happens is another matter, but senior men from Alan Davies, the Wales coach, downwards came to this sensible conclusion as soon as seasonal programmes of four or more B and Under-21 internationals were, quite rightly, deemed necessary.

If this sounds typical of the muddle, not to mention division between the interests of country and clubs, that afflicted Welsh rugby for too many years, it is not quite all it seems. If club coaches are concerned at the representative demands on their players, they should at least appreciate that, without the priority being firmly fixed to the national team, Welsh rugby - and they will all be tarred with the brush - will be stuck somewhere around the fourth division of world rugby.

But as the Heineken League begins there is hope, and it is engendered not only by the programme being put into place for Wales. The search for excellence implicit in the establishment of a league has never been pursued more single-mindedly by clubs who have come to realise that success is essential, one might almost say a condition of survival, rather than merely desirable.

So how do you set about it? How about imitating the principles of Japanese business management? If that sounds absurd in a game of the people such as Welsh rugby, it is happening. Neath, the inaugural Heineken champions in 1991-92 but down in fourth place last season, have put their players through a management-training exercise based on the ideas of William Edwards Deming, the American whose philosophy of management was directly responsible for reviving Japan's shattered industry after the Second World War and keeping it successful for 40 years thereafter.

Now if this is beginning to sound far-fetched, the reality is quite the contrary. Brian Thomas, Neath's club administrator, is a management consultant who has been a disciple of Deming since Thomas was at Cambridge University. Neath's initially bemused players have been through it; so have those of most of clubs in the area, the idea being that ultimately Neath as well as the local clubs would benefit if Thomas were to extend his philanthropy to his neighbours. Anyone else will have to pay.

The lengths some clubs will go these days may seem faintly ludicrous, not least because rugby union remains pleased to call itself an amateur sport, but the way Thomas explains it makes it sound perfectly straightforward. Yet it is innovative and, in rugby terms anyway, highly sophisticated. 'It is no more than basic management principles and Neath's success in recent years shows what they can do,' Thomas said.

'What did Deming tell the Japanese to do? Make teams and give people specific responsibility to carry within that team. Develop leadership and problem-solving techniques, using simple statistics, and take the responsibility down to the lowest possible level. There was nothing wrong with the workers; it was the people who drive the system, the bosses, but if you encouraged the workers to monitor themselves for output and quality the rest falls into place. This is directly applicable to rugby.'

All of which may seem as clear as mud, and Thomas is chary of going into specifics about what he does at Neath lest he give the game - and thereby the championship - away to someone else. For the Neath players, it comes down to self-analysis. To take one example, pounds 3,500 has been invested in video taping and copying equipment so that by the time players go home after a match they each have a recording with which they are expected to analyse and criticise their own performances. Using these techniques off the field, they finished last season with a long unbeaten run which has to put them among this season's contenders.

This sort of thing is simple, effective and out of all proportion to the way clubs used to operate in the pre-league days. Gareth Edwards and not William Edwards Deming is the icon in those parts, but Japanese industry flourishes in south Wales as a constant reminder of what even rugby can learn. It is by no means Neath alone; other clubs are doing other things. But then perhaps only Heineken could have done this.

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