Rugby Union: The best are resting, the rest are average

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The Independent Online
THE RUGBY season has got off to a very disappointing start. I realise that the scene is overshadowed by the forthcoming World Cup but that is no excuse for the inferior rugby we have been seeing during these first weeks of the club season.

Back in my playing days we needed the first couple of games in order to bring our match fitness up to the mark. But in these days of more intense training, fitness is not the problem. There is a worrying lack of basic skills like handling and tackling.

I have seen several Welsh and English games on television and have been amazed at the number of mistakes being made. The arrival of professionalism means that everyone is much bigger and, in certain cases, much quicker than they were in the old days. But the general skill level does not seem to be as high as it was.

The Cardiff coach, Lyn Howells, counted 16 unforced errors in their first game against Newport. That's a shocking statistic. Players can be forgiven if they start flagging before the end of the early games but not when they show such a lack of command of the fundamental skills. Obviously, the absence of all the top players on international duty is going to mean a lowering of standards, but surely not to the extent we have seen so far.

This should be a time when every player tries to take advantage of his first-team opportunities so that he enhances his value to the squad before the stars return. But there has not been much evidence that they are busting a gut to do so. No matter how big and strong you are, games are not going to be won unless the errors are kept to a minimum.

I was up at Harlequins during the week and they were doing heavy contact work in training because of the number of tackles they had missed in the previous game. They looked absolutely knackered. They'd forgotten the old saying - you either do it properly during the game or get flogged to death in training. It's much easier to get it right in the game.

Retaining possession is more important than ever because defences are so well organised that you have to keep the ball while you probe for the gaps. And when the gaps appear you need the skill to take immediate advantage.

Not that the defences have been all that efficient. I have been shocked at how easily some of them have been cut wide open. Llanelli's fell apart last weekend to give Swansea two tries. The first was from a missed tackle and the second was caused by a centre drifting too much and leaving a huge gap.

Mistakes do not come more basic than that. Lack of communication is usually at the root of most defensive lapses. Backs tend to push forward too early in the drift defence and leave gaps on their inside shoulder that can easily be punished.

If they can't get this right after a long bout of pre-season training, you wonder if they ever will. It is scary to think that the players we have been watching are the next rank down from the international players. It is not enough to wait for the World Cup to be over. Clubs have got to take a long hard look at what is happening now and start demanding higher standards.

I had hoped to see some up-and-coming players taking this opportunity to grab the limelight but I have seen only one up to now. Mind you, he makes up for a lot. The Cardiff full-back Rhys Williams is an outstanding prospect and looks capable of quickly fulfilling all the promise he showed recently for Wales Under-19s. He has searing pace and hurtles through gaps almost before they appear.

He can beat people on the outside, which is a great talent, and he shows all the ability you despair of seeing among our youngsters. Wales have taken him to Portugal with the World Cup training squad and it is an honour he richly deserves.

If the Welsh are worried about one thing at the moment it is lack of pace among their backs. Williams has arrived too late for this World Cup, of course, but he is going to be a very valuable player in the future. No matter what home country they can play for, I hope that a few more can catch our eye during the next few weeks. In the standards we have seen so far this season, they will never get a better chance.