Rugby Union: Price of the strain game

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ROB ANDREW reckons that the present crop of young players, such as Jonny Wilkinson, will not last as long in the game as him or Ieuan Evans, who brought his great career to an end last week. There's a real danger, he says, that the new stars will be burned out quicker by the growing demands the modern game is placing on players.

Rob has not exactly been idle in his prolonged stint in top-class rugby. You don't collect 71 England caps without maintaining a high standard of fitness and performance over many years. And the same goes for Ieuan, who is Wales's most capped international having played 72 times.

But Rob believes that the physical intensity required in the first years of a young players' career is far greater now than in his early days and that today's youngsters will find it hard to stay at the top for 15 years.

Certainly, it is important that the game gets around to recognising the pressures it is putting the players under with the sapping mixture of club and international games they have to face. The length of a player's career will still depend very much on how fortunate he is in avoiding injuries - it was injury that did for me and Ieuan in the end - but it's the training regimes these days that have done the most damage to the older players.

I met Rob and Jonny at Newcastle last Thursday when I interviewed them for a BBC Wales television programme and, chatting afterwards, Rob and I agreed that the real world of professional rugby will not start until the season after the World Cup. The past few years have been such a shapeless existence for everyone in the game and until the squabbling stops and we establish a properly structured season we won't be able to control the demands we are making on players.

But, as always, it will be up to the individual player to ensure that he meets the high fitness standards required without overdoing it. Wilkinson is impressing everyone with his mature approach to the game and, at the age of 19, his appetite for the action is tremendous. He is fortunate that he has been under the close guidance of Rob at Newcastle, and they in turn are certainly lucky to have him.

Much has been said, especially by me, about his true position being outside- half and the player himself recognises that he will eventually end up there.

But at the moment he is happy to be an inside centre for both club and country. From his club's point of view, it works well for him to play at centre with Andrew at outside-half, because he gives them so many extra options from that position. He is a good decision-maker, his distribution is very good and his left- footed kicking adds another dimension. It is always handy to have in your team two excellent kickers who operate one off the right and the other off the left.

That also applies to England, so that is where he is likely to remain, especially while they have injury problems in the centre. Next season he will replace Rob at outside-half for Newcastle. Whether he moves there for England before the World Cup will depend on so many other factors.

His presence in that event plus in the new-style Euro- pean Cup with Newcastle will do a lot for his development, and he has made a wise decision to stay with the same club for an extra year. The last thing he needs right now is the uncertainty of a move. There will be plenty of time for him to consider his long-term future when next season ends.

I hope that one day he will be able to look back on his career with as much satisfaction as Ieuan Evans, who was reluctant to retire but had to face up the to the fact that recovering from injury while trying to maintain high fitness standards is almost impossible for veterans. He'll be a very difficult player to replace.

Not many appreciate that Ieuan's achievements for Wales were all the greater because he didn't have the advantage of playing in the glory days. In fact, most of his international career was played in desperate times, when crushing defeats were the order of the day.

For him to set a new Welsh record of 33 tries on such a meagre ration of possession is nothing short of phenomenal. And he did it with a style that will be sorely missed.