Rugby Union: Wales to put faith in Black's fitness magic

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The Independent Online
GRAHAM HENRY'S colourful assertion that Wales will be "walking the plank" when they confront the Springboks at Wembley next month does not necessarily mean that Steve Black, his new fitness advisor, intends to spend the first few weeks of his five-year contract handing out water wings rather than diet sheets. Still, the national coach is not ruling out the possibility of a likely drubbing turning into a mass drowning. "In an ideal world, I wouldn't have chosen to play South Africa first up," he admitted yesterday.

Henry is lumbered with it, of course, but by luring the inspirational Geordie away from Newcastle, where he cut a central figure in the Falcons' triumphant raid on last season's Allied Dunbar Premiership, the coach has ensured that his players will face the world champions in peak condition, if not necessarily in peak form. "I'm not interested in emulating anyone else, not even the 'Boks or the All Blacks," said Black. "If anything, I intend to get everyone copying us."

Henry went after Black following discussions with Pat Lam, Va'aiga Tuigamala and Ross Nesdale, three senior Falcons imports whom he had coached in his previous incarnation as one of New Zealand's outstanding tactical thinkers. "They told me that Steve was the guy making the difference and helping them steal a yard on the rest," said Henry. "If you think someone has a real talent, you make sure you get them involved. The trick is to pull together a group of people who will help you hit 10 out of 10 rather than nine out of 10."

Judging by the public reaction to the latest developments in the now infamous Mark Jones affair, the Welsh Rugby Union's disciplinary committee would struggle to get one out of 10. Their decision to ban the Ebbw Vale No 8 for three matches for landing a nasty punch on Ian Gough, the Pontypridd lock, earlier this month drew howls of protest from all quarters - especially as Rod Snow, Newport's Canadian prop, picked up a four-match suspension for two technical offences that emphatically did not fracture an opponent's eye socket.

Gough's father was the first to speak out. "I feel disgust and contempt for the committee, who are condoning thuggery and gratuitous violence on the field," he said. "It is not only Mark Jones who needs to see a psychologist. The WRU should book an appointment as well."

However, Henry confirmed that Jones would be considered for the Springbok Test - "I'm not interested in undisciplined players because they lose matches and embarrass you, but Mark knows that now" - while David Pickering, the Wales team manager, said Jones and Gough "smoked the pipe of peace" at yesterday's squad session in Bridgend. In light of the current controversy over banned substances in rugby, they should watch their step.

Darren Morris, the 24-year-old Swansea prop, was called into the squad by Henry to replace Peter Rogers, the injured London Irish forward whose damaged knee ligaments will probably keep him out of action until the new year. Morris won two caps during the summer tour of Zimbabwe and South Africa.

Bath, meanwhile, have paved the way for the departure of Richard Butland, their disaffected second-string outside-half, by buying out the remaining year of his contract. The England A international is now free to switch clubs without any prospect of a transfer fee being involved. "I'm sad to be leaving, but I have to go," he said yesterday. "They weren't going to pick me at Bath. I know I could have achieved more there, but there were certain people in the way."

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