Jonathan Davies: How deep is our game? Let's find out

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The Independent Online

The next two months contain not one but two big tests of the rugby strengths of the four home countries. The first is how they fare in the World Cup, and the second is how hard the returning players are going to have to fight for their club places when they get back in November.

For the long-term future of the Celtic nations, the second test could be as important as the first.

The most noticeable aspect of this new season is how much deeper England's strength is than that of their three rivals. I'm sure the Zurich Premiership clubs are missing the top stars, but the quality of the competition they have left behind is still very strong. And I am sure the stay-at-homes will be busting a gut to ensure that when the heroes come back they will have to fight to regain their places.

That is how it should be, and it is an important indication of how thorough as well as rapid has been the transformation in the English game.

I fear this is not the case in the Celtic League. At this admittedly early stage, you can sense that the Scottish sides are going to struggle to fill the gaps left by their international players.

It is much the same story in Ireland, where the provinces have had a stuttering start, particularly against the Welsh.

In Wales, of course, we have the extra impetus of a new structure which everyone is hoping will lay the foundations of a brighter future. I still have my doubts. The crunch will come in the Heineken Cup, which starts two weekends after the World Cup final.

I would imagine that Ireland, Wales and Scotland will have been long home by then, and players will have had time to settle back into the domestic scene. I just hope that they don't find it too easy, and that the younger players will have made the most of their opportunity.

In normal times it is very difficult for coaches to blood the up-and-coming players. With so much at stake in every game they tend to rely on the tried and tested players. They have no option now but to get the youngsters off the bench and on to the pitch. Opportunity being the wonderful thing it is, I am looking forward to some interesting selection problems being created, particularly in Wales.

Part of the reason for the slump in Welsh rugby has been the talent being spread so thinly at club level that players have not had to compete hard for their places. Reducing the top level to five regional teams will make a big difference, but I am not convinced it is the final answer. At the moment, I see only Llanelli having the quality to reach the latter stages of the Heineken Cup, and that is not good enough.

The picture may change if the returning internationals find it a more competitive place, so there will be plenty for the home fans to look out for. One encouraging sign is the initial success of the new Premier League, which is made up from the original club sides. This is a semi-professional competition and is composed mainly of young players, and the early games have been producing some exciting rugby. The fans are certainly enjoying it, and attendances have been surprisingly high. Many of them, of course, are die-hard followers of clubs who have been forced to merge to play in the higher sphere.

Another big factor is that the games are played on Saturday afternoons. Over the past few years, Friday- and Saturday-evening kick-offs played havoc with the traditional watching habits of the fans. The luxury of Saturday-afternoon rugby, and good stuff at that, is bringing them flocking back.

This new league could well be the basis of the Welsh comeback, even if we do have to cut back to three regions in the future.

With my former Welsh team-mates, I was at a dinner on Thursday to mark the 1987 World Cup, when we finished third, and the Triple Crown of 1988. The trophy cabinet has only been troubled once since, when Wales won the 1994 Five Nations. They showed our tries, and the audience were on their feet cheering. A pity it all happened over 15 years ago. As I said to the lads, we are the new old fogeys.

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