Alan Watkins: Club form in Europe points to paradox in Welsh game

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The Independent Online

My colleagues have written about the two Leicester-Wasps rugby union encounters in terms recalling the posters advertising Jane Russell in the film The Outlaw: "mean, moody, magnificent." And, of course, they are entirely right.

My colleagues have written about the two Leicester-Wasps rugby union encounters in terms recalling the posters advertising Jane Russell in the film The Outlaw: "mean, moody, magnificent." And, of course, they are entirely right. Even so, the question which the two matches aroused in me was, whom would you least like to have as a son-in-law: Martin Johnson or Lawrence Dallaglio? To which the concerned parent might well reply: either would be preferable to Matt Dawson.

All three are out of the England reckoning: Johnson and Dallaglio because they have retired from international rugby, Dawson because he has fallen out with Andy Robinson or, rather, because Robinson has fallen out with him, over placing A Question of Sport above training with the England squad. However, Dallaglio wishes to be considered for the Lions tour of New Zealand next year.

Presumably Dawson does too, though it would not be surprising if he was less than enthusiastic following his unhappy experiences under Graham Henry's managership in Australia. Certainly Ben Cohen feels this way. But, as he has been discarded by England, and is playing in the centre for Northampton, his chances of selection for the New Zealand trip must be problematical, to say the least.

Perhaps we should declare a moratorium on the Lions until after the Six Nations Championship. Who would have thought a year ago, when Gordon D'Arcy could not win an assured place in the Ireland side, that he would end last season as the most likely partner of Brian O'Driscoll in any Lions XV?

D'Arcy is now injured. Until he recovers, and produces something of last season's form, O'Driscoll's most probable partner looks like being either Mike Tindall, who is injured also, or Gavin Henson, who has been doing great things - and not only with the boot - for Neath-Swansea recently.

His team has not been doing specially well in the Heineken Cup, despite their two convincing wins over Harlequins. Nor have Llanelli been as impressive as they were in previous seasons, when they were consistently the club that were almost but not quite there. Cardiff have been pathetic. Great things were expected of Newport-Gwent Dragons, but still they went down to Perpignan.

In short, the overall performance of the Welsh clubs has been just as disappointing as it has been in the Heineken group matches of previous years. Only the Scottish clubs have been more of a pushover. And yet, paradoxically, Wales are being talked up as an outfit that will certainly do well in the Six Nations and may, with a bit of luck, even carry off the competition.

There is certainly a revival of national confidence, though how well founded it may be is another matter. It began, not with the last Six Nations - which offered little more than hope for the future - but before then, with Wales' performances in the 2003 World Cup, in particular with the group match against New Zealand and the quarter-final against England.

It all happened by accident. Wales were assured of coming second in the group and, accordingly, of playing England. Steve Hansen, the then coach (who has now returned to his native New Zealand as Henry's assistant), put out a largely experimental side for the New Zealand game.

For instance, Shane Williams, who had been taken out as a third-choice scrum-half, the position he had played as a schoolboy, was restored to his proper place on the left wing. Henry, Hansen's predecessor as Wales' coach, had deprived him of this because he was "too small". And Williams looked dangerous when ever he touched the ball. So one could go on, through the side.

The second stage in confidence rebuilding was provided by the two recent internationals, against South Africa and New Zealand, both of which Wales could conceivably have won.

A regret I had was that Mike Ruddock, the new Wales coach, was unable to partner Brett Cockbain with Jonathan Thomas in the second row, whether because Thomas was injured or because Ruddock had other notions I do not know. Thomas was one of the great successes of the World Cup, but in the back row. Ruddock has a settled No 6 and No 8 in, respectively, Dafydd Jones and Michael Owen. Rather than put Owen into the second row, where his talents are wasted, he should give Thomas the chance to play in the position he now occupies with Cockbain for Neath-Swansea.

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