Rugby Union: Swansea fear a bloody battle: Robert Cole on worrying signs in Wales as the league programme begins today

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The Independent Online
STUART DAVIES, the new Swansea captain, is prepared to fight against any odds to ensure his team retain the Heineken League title, and he expects the new laws to make it a bloody campaign.

Having had a taste of the latest legislation in a three-match unbeaten tour of Canada last month, Davies's men are better prepared for the league campaign than most.

The 18-16 win over a British Columbian team fielding 11 of the Canadian World Cup quarter-final side gave a fair indication that the All Whites are not going to give up their crown easily. Nor, according to Davies, without a fight.

'From what I've seen of the laws, I think initially there is going to be more spoiling and negative play,' Davies said. 'That is going to lead to frustration and, I'm afraid, bring a bit more violence into the game. If people kill the ball in the loose there could be trouble.'

Welsh referees have been told to enforce strict discipline and Gareth Simmonds, who will be in charge of this season's first full international when England meet Canada at Wembley on 17 October, does not anticipate too many extra problems.

'What we won't be doing as referees is trying to coach the players in the new laws. That's the job of club coaches and our task will be to ensure the game flows,' Simmonds said. 'It's up to us to ensure the new laws aren't accompanied by more violent play. The only grey area I can see is at the rucks, but any player on the wrong side will be quickly penalised.'

So who can stop Swansea, with their battery of internationals and some valuable recruits, from repeating their success? The bookmakers have them as firm favourites and Davies is full of confidence, but the club's coach, Mike Ruddock, is cagier.

'The first game I was in charge we lost and we looked anything but Heineken League champions then. I have faith in the squad of players at the club, but I haven't said as yet that we will definitely win the title,' Ruddock said. 'Like all clubs we will have to come to terms with the new laws, but also the strain of having so many of our players committed to national squads.'

Newbridge, the team who stripped Swansea of their Worthington Welsh Sevens title last weekend, get the first chance to test the mettle of the champions. But even without Davies, who is carrying a back injury, the All Whites should get off to a winning start.

So, too, should Llanelli, the runners-up of the last two seasons, who are at Pontypool, while all eyes at Aberavon will be glued to Nigel Walker, Cardiff's new wing. The former Olympic high hurdles semi-finalist has already shown he has the ability to make the grade after a 10-year break in his rugby career with 17 tries in two sevens tournaments.

Today also marks the end of the honeymoon period of Cardiff's new coaching team - the Australian Alex Evans, Terry Holmes, Tony Faulkner and Alun Donovan. Victory could set them on course for a tilt at the title: defeat may convince most people that the pre-season hype has been hot air.