Black hole without Mr Motivator

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I fear that Wales have gone a scapegoat too far. The resignation of fitness coach Steve Black might have pleased critics of his unique style and satisfied those always happy to see an individual carry the can for Welsh failings but there's a danger that his sudden departure will have a damaging effect on team morale in the lead-up to the big test in Dublin on Saturday.

A fitness coach these days has to be a man manager and motivator and Black's work in this area was phenomenally successful last year. He helped Graham Henry to transform a bunch of mostly average players into an above-average international team. But it doesn't take many setbacks for the back-biting to start.

I said here a couple of weeks ago that complaints about the fitness of the Welsh team failed to take into consideration the cumulative effect of the gruelling programme Wales had to endure last year. They had the toughest summer and World Cup build-up of all.

I've tried to play back-to-back seasons and there's a big price to pay. While I was playing rugby league, I squeezed a summer playing in Australia in between two winter seasons with Warrington over here. After the second Christmas, I was mentally tired and, although I could pass fitness tests, I'd lost my sharpness and a lot of my stamina.

Much of the criticism that hurt Black came from former internationals. It's a fact of life in Welsh rugby that you play under the strict gaze of stars from former eras who aren't backward when it comes to criticism. I suppose I fall into that category myself.

But it is not too long ago that I was out there myself so I have some idea of the demands of the modern game. Those who have played in an age when there were far fewer crucial matches might not realise the intensity of the game these days. They were fit in their day and I'm sure they'd be fit if they were playing today but if you haven't experienced the increased demands then it is difficult to appreciate the problem.

Having two fitness masters is a difficulty. When I was first playing you had a fitness coach with your club but not with Wales. In my last couple of years, there was a fitness man at the club and another with Wales. And you got flogged by both. I finally packed the game in because my knee wouldn't take any more but the training was far more of a problem than the playing. It was because Blackie brought a new dimension to fitness and conditioning that he was so popular. He was an amazing character with a fascinating background, good fun to be with and someone the players could confide in.

Whoever takes his place is on a hiding to nothing. I only hope that the replacement has a similar appreciation of what is needed. While there are players who won't train unless you've got a gun on them, there are others who become training fanatics. The trouble with them is that they are champions only in the gym. Best trainers in the world during the week and hard pushed to kick a tin around on a Saturday.

Wales will miss Blackie when it comes to preparing their minds for the Irish game. He did a lot to cement them back together after the England defeat and the eligibility fiasco. Graham Henry has to do the galvanising job on his own.

Henry took some brave selection gambles which came off for the Scottish match and he has some more big decisions to make this week. I'd be inclined to stick close to the same players to face an Irish team who have suddenly found solidity up front and pace behind. Their coach Warren Gatland has produced a blend of experience and youth that is brimful of confidence. The presence of two such effective stand-offs inRonan O'Gara and David Humphreys has given him a lethal option. Bringing Humphreys on to do something different can be a devastating ploy. People can't believe the change in Ireland since the thrashing by England.

The key is they've tightened up their defence which is always the first step towards improvement. There was nothing wrong with the Welsh defence against Scotland but the Irish have pace in abundance. It may well all come down to how Wales manage without the man who used to wind them up.

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