Rugby union: The old enemy prove our friends in need

'Nobody has suffered more than players with the leading clubs who've repeatedly had the vision of a challenging season snatched away'
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The Independent Online
AMID ALL the bitter arguments, insults and threats that have come close to tearing British rugby apart, this summer there's been little thought for those who now face the task of picking up the pieces and running with them.

I know that we're not supposed to sympathise with the players now that they are professionals but it must have been difficult for them to be hanging around like a bunch of spare parts while all the bickering about the structure of the new season has been going on during the past month or so.

Pre-season training is hard enough when you know what awaits you but I can't imagine anything less motivating than preparing for something that changes shape almost every day. Nobody has suffered more than the players based with the leading Welsh clubs who've repeatedly had the vision of a challenging and exciting season snatched away from them.

The Cardiff and Swansea squads have been the worst affected because they are still at the forefront of the battle and even now are unsure what awaits. If they do play a season of "friendlies" against the English clubs it is going to be no joy-ride. I hope that they both get this chance to play at what will be a consistently higher level of rugby because I believe it will be good for them and for Welsh rugby generally if they do.

But it won't be as straightforward as it looks. Apart from the European competition they've had at the start of the past two seasons, neither has been taking part in a regular and demanding domestic programme and won't be used to sustaining a high level of performance over a long period of time.

Cardiff have fared well in the European Cup. In my last season we beat Bath at home and Wasps away and last season they beat Harlequins away after losing at home. So the recent form against big clubs is encouraging.

But games in the European Cup are one-offs, occasions a team can rise to. When you get major games coming at you at the rate of one a week, it is much more exhausting test of your resources. This is where the English clubs have the edge. They have all built up an experience and a strength in depth that the Welsh clubs will find hard to match at first.

This is why it was essential that the top Welsh clubs played in a tougher competition this season. Another year playing the same old opposition would put them at a great disadvantage when they step up to the British League in 12 months' time. This hasn't been confrontation for confrontation's sake. These clubs are fighting for their futures and any more time spent in the wilderness could be fatal.

Even if only one or two Welsh clubs manage to get into a higher class of rugby it will allow them a better preparation for the new league and alert the others to the standards they will be expected to reach. I am assuming that these friendlies are going to be like the friendlies of old - in other words, anything but. The English clubs have promised that they will take them very seriously, otherwise it would be pointless having them, and I can't imagine any Welsh-English match being less than flat- out.

Perhaps, during the more congested part of the season we might find the odd star being given a rest but they have so much strength in depth it won't matter so much.

As long as the Welsh fans see enough of the top men like Lawrence Dallaglio, Martin Johnson, Francois Pienaar and Alain Penaud plus a few of the exiles they'll be happy. And I have no doubt that the press will soon be printing an unofficial league table which will add to the interest. It will also add to the pressure on the Welsh representatives. If they flop, there might be questions asked next year about how many Welsh clubs, if any, deserve to get into the top division of a British League.

I would think that they would do very well to finish in the top half of the table - that's how much things have deteriorated in Wales over the past decade. In my last season with Llanelli in 1988 we beat Gloucester 60-12. Gloucester would go down to Stradey as favourites these days.

Once people stop thinking of this as a rebellion and start to see it in pure rugby terms they will realise that there's a lot more at stake than a few bruised egos. This is an essential part of the battle for the future of Welsh rugby and I applaud the English for attempting to stand by their old Welsh rivals. It is an irony that the "old enemy" should come to the rescue but, then again, perhaps we're finding out who our real friends are.

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