Rugby Union: The perils of peaking too early

Jonathan Davies is worried by the professionals who will soon be fit to drop
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The Independent Online
When Bath visit Pontypridd today in the European Cup, I shall be looking forward to this early chance to compare Welsh and English club standards and I'll be paying particular attention to the fitness levels.

This is not because as a newly retired player I want to make sure the lads are not slacking, I just want to confirm my impression that players are much fitter now than they've ever been at the start of a season.

From what I've seen up to now, I believe that to be the case and it worries me. There's every reason to be fit at the start of a season but there are only so many peaks a body can reach over a period of time and I wonder how they are going to maintain this level of fitness for a long and demanding season without doing themselves damage.

There was a time when clubs used to amble into action and gradually build up the pace through the autumn. If there was an international early in the season it was usually an occasion to get the rust out of the system. Those days disappeared with the arrival of the professional era and we have a right to expect a bit more urgency but the speed with which the new season has hit the ground running is phenomenal.

When Wales played Romania at Wrexham last weekend, September hadn't even arrived and yet the Welsh were in Five Nations fettle. Romania didn't stand a chance and the winning margin could have been 100 points.

I was delighted at the way Wales played. The forwards were very impressive, with some good ball-carrying skill displayed by Rob Appleyard, Barry Williams and Steve Moore. Skipper Gwyn Jones was an excellent link and the competition lining up for back-row places is heartening.

But it was only six weeks since Wales returned from their tour of the USA and Canada and for most of that time the players have been engaged in meeting very strict club training regimes. It took only one look at Cardiff's to convince me to call it a day. The same thing is happening elsewhere and I've been particularly impressed with the standard in the English clubs matches I've seen, particularly the ball retention skills. They haven't picked those up without plenty of graft.

England haven't played an international yet but they have three coming up in the next few months and the same applies to the other countries. Meanwhile, the top clubs have the European Cup and their own domestic competitions to contend with. We used to be able to rely on a few easy games but every fixture is a battle these days.

I fully realise the problems. The clubs have made big investments in their squads while the countries are increasingly aware that the 1999 World Cup is less than two years away but I do appeal to both to give some consideration to their most important assets. It is impossible to play all-year rugby without high risk of a major injury.

Twice I attempted to play rugby for 20 months non-stop and twice I caught the backlash. In 1991, I squeezed in a summer playing for Canterbury Bulldogs in Australia between two seasons for Widnes. In 1995, I spent the summer playing for North Queensland and in the following winter moved from Warrington to Cardiff rather unexpectedly. On both occasions the strain of not taking a rest resulted in a hernia operation.

Fitness is king in rugby at the moment. But hard training without proper rest is counter-productive. Not only does regular rest prevent physical fatigue, it prevents mental tiredness. I must emphasise that the main problem is not the playing but the amount of training - that's what did for me and it'll ruin many more. In my opinion, enthusiasm is still as important as any facet of professional sport and I am not sure that the game has cottoned on yet.

As for myself, I have started light training but I am not ready yet to play the fun rugby I mentioned last week. I've already had a few invitations to turn out including one for Crawshay's XV in Cornwall next week. I've had to turn it down, I'm afraid. Even Frank Sinatra left his comebacks a bit longer than a fortnight.