Rugby Union: The rough guide to domination

Jonathan Davies discovers the ruthless realities of the big time on his return for Wales
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I WAS quite pleased with my international comeback last Sunday. I lasted the pace, came through the physical challenge in good shape and managed to stick the ball through the posts five times out of five. It was an experience I was fearful of but I left the pitch with a renewed appetite for the top level. But that doesn't alter the fact that I was one of 45 northern hemisphere players who finished the weekend uncomfortably aware of the large amount of work to be done if we are ever going to stop the southern hemisphere sides coming up over the Equator to give us a good hiding.

South Africa, the New Zealand Barbarians and Australia proved much better equipped than France, England and Wales, and we were all back staring at the drawing board last week.

It can be done. My own experience of earning a living playing rugby on the other side of the world tells me that they are not superhuman and can be matched if you adopt the right attitude, refuse to be intimidated and have confidence in your own ability. When they come over here individually to play at club level they don't seem to be as formidable but when they get together the transformation is amazing.

It is not a question of patriotism. You would hardly question the national pride of any Five Nations team. But somehow they present an aggressively united front that we find difficult to counter. There are reasons for this in the quality of the representative rugby they play between club and international levels. The Heineken European Cup might help to give us more of a boost in that direction.

The conditions they play in, certainly in South Africa and Australia, must also be a help. When you see giant forwards able to win the ball and then sprint 50 yards, it must be something to do with playing most of your rugby on firm surfaces. And perhaps they benefit from not having the domination of soccer to contend with. The Australians have rivals in league and Australian Rules but in New Zealand and South Africa every last boy is born wanting to be an All Black or a Springbok and is desperately competitive from the start.

But the main reason we fail against them is that we are nowhere near as ruthless. They will do anything to gain advantage, even if they have to step across the boundary lines of the laws. If the referees were more strict, and if touch judges had more power to indicate infringements instead of just rough play, perhaps they would be less inclined to do it but they are experts at exploiting weaknesses not only among the opposition but in the referees and touch judges as well.

I make no excuses for our defeat against Australia. On the day they were the stronger and more forceful team, and denied Wales any decent ball. But we went into that game believing we had a distinct advantage in the line-out and they barged across, took out our support players and generally made it impossible for our jumpers to get good ball for us. Some referees would have been blowing up continually. Ours let play proceed and we seemed powerless to put matters right. That's when you've got to be ruthless. Even if you have to start a mass punch-up you must force the referee to take action against the cause of the unrest.

It is the same when defending players get the wrong side of the ball in the ruck. If the referee doesn't punish them you have to do it yourself with a good raking. One way or another they can't be allowed to do it to you. It sounds as if I am preaching anarchy but that is the reality of the game at the top level. It is cut-throat and because we are generally the innocents we are getting stuffed.

Ireland are really the only team who know how to look after themselves in this respect. I heard Willie-John McBride give a speech last week and he touched on the same subject. He wasn't a big second-row player but he made up for it by being a fierce competitor. He was revered because he wouldn't take any nonsense.

It is not only the forwards. The backs do a lot of taking people out off the ball and will continue to do so while they are allowed to get away with it. There is no point blaming professionalism for this. Skulduggery has been in rugby union for much longer than pay-packets and we should get ourselves better armed to deal with it.

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