How all rest and no play made Peel a frustrated man

A Welsh Lion plays for first time since early July today - the wait has been a pain. Hugh Godwin talks to him

Peel will poke his spiky hair above the parapet for the Llanelli Scarlets at Leeds this afternoon in his first meaningful action since the Third Lions Test in Auckland on 9 July. Michael Owen turned out for the Newport-Gwent Dragons against Leicester on Friday night, and Martyn Williams was on the bench for the Cardiff Blues yesterday. In between has been a comparatively restful 12 weeks, which began for Peel with a fortnight's holiday in Australia, followed on his arrival home by a complete month off.

"It's only in the last two weeks I've been doing contact and skill work and team runs with the Scarlets," said Peel. "Before that it was fitness, weights and speed work on the pitch next door. It was tough all right, but what we didn't have to do was the contact. After the Lions I was ready for a rest, mentally as well."

England's wrangles with the demands of club and country have hogged the headlines of late. In South Africa the Springbok coach, Jake White, was forced to compromise over his wish for the top 10 players to sit out the remainder of the Currie Cup.

In Wales, as in Ireland, the needs of the national team are paramount. "Your contract is held by the region," said Peel, "but the region has signed a charter with the [Welsh Rugby] Union. The Union have imposed the rest period, so there was nothing we could do about it." It does not sound quite like a ringing endorsement, and the regions are unhappy that their Celtic League results have suffered.

But Peel will not be wanting for work from now until May in the League, Powergen Cup and Heineken Cup for the Scarlets, and in the November Tests and Six Nations for Wales. "I'll probably look back and be glad I had the rest," he said. "There's been plenty of banter around at Llanelli - 'feet up again, Dwayne?', all that sort of jazz. But there's no resentment, they're quite supportive really."

The most important distinction with England, where the RFU have published details of player appearances to the nearest minute, while clubs insist they know best when it comes to welfare, is that a difficult decision was taken out of the Welsh players' hands. "In England it was left to the players, really," said Peel. "If that had been the case in Wales most of the guys would have played earlier. Players always want to play."

And it would be a rare plan if it worked perfectly; injuries have still struck the Grand Slam winners. Of the 12 Welsh Lions, Gethin Jenkins (shoulder) and Gavin Henson (groin) have had surgery and are likely to miss the four autumn Tests, which kick off against New Zealand on 5 November. Shane Williams (groin) is touch and go, while Tom Shanklin (knee), Gareth Cooper (ankle operation) and the Ospreys back-row Ryan Jones (shoulder) are due back next week. Brent Cockbain was allowed to start the season with the Ospreys, while the France-based pair of Stephen Jones and Gareth Thomas were given no respite by Clermont-Auvergne and Toulouse. Indeed there was further bad news from France last night, with Jones badly twisting his ankle in a tackle. The injury is expected to keep him out for four weeks.

Peel beat off the competition from Cooper, England's Matt Dawson and Chris Cusiter of Scotland to start all three Lions internationals against the All Blacks. This afternoon he rejoins battle with Justin Marshall, the New Zealander now at Leeds. "This is a big couple of weeks for the Scarlets," said Peel. "We were disappointed not to win at Munster last weekend, when they had a top side out, and we want to keep the good performances going into the Heineken Cup. That's the big competition."

Peel pauses when asked if his game moved on with the Lions. Without saying so in as many words, he intimates that his memories are happier of the Grand Slam, and moments such as his singular celebratory war dance after Ryan Jones's opening try in the rout of Scotland at Murrayfield. "I haven't got a clue what I was doing," Peel said with a chuckle. "It's been replayed in training about a thousand times. Stephen Jones is the main culprit."

Tomorrow the Wales squad meet up for the first time this season, but Peel will be watched today by the defence coach, Clive Griffiths, who lives in Lancashire and is keeping tabs on the likes of Sale's Mark Taylor, Colin Charvis at Newcastle and Leeds's Richard Parks, Scott Morgan and Chris Rhys Jones.

The Tykes won the Power-gen Cup at Twickenham last season, but the change in format plus a new trophy under-mine any marketing hype that they are defending the title. Leeds' director of rugby, Phil Davies, had six seasons as captain at Stradey Park, though that was then and the Llanelli club and this is now and the Scarlets region.

Rugby's capacity to confuse shows no sign of suffering burn-out.

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