This is a very good time of the season in Wales for players to get fit and play themselves into form, and an early highlight has been the displays of the two scrum-halves pushing hardest for the national jersey. Dwayne Peel of the Scarlets and Mike Phillips of the Blues could not have more contrasting styles in how they play the game, and - the way I see it - vive la différence.
Technically Peel is the better player, with his kicking and his tactical appreciation. Phillips is 6ft 4in and a complete nuisance when you play against him. He was man of the match against France in last year's Six Nations when Peel was injured but the smaller man is back fit and playing well, and as a bonus he has Stephen Jones alongside him at fly-half for the Scarlets after Jones's return from France.
The choice Wales make at No 9 will reflect the way they want to play. Against, say, Scotland they might want Peel doing a bit of darting; against England or France they can have Phillips to be physical. In my days playing for Wales we had a very similar situation with the contrasting styles of Robert Jones and Jonathan Griffiths.
This is the whole point of regional teams in Wales: to have Welsh combinations playing together. The presence of Jones - who I am sure will get the nod at No 10 for the autumn internationals - gives Peel another edge over Phillips.
But don't disregard the Cardiff Blues fly-half Nicky Robinson, who played excellently in midweek. He could be a very effective weapon for Wales to use from the bench, and he might even start the odd match with Stephen Jones moved to inside- centre. These are all interesting choices for the Wales coach, Gareth Jenkins, to ponder as he watches the Magners League, EDF Energy Cup and Heineken Cup unfold.
It certainly represents a massive step forward from last season, which was an absolute disaster, with loads of injuries in addition to the upheaval among the Wales coaches. Looking throughout the country, we have quality players fit again - Brent Cockbain, Ryan Jones, Gethin Jenkins, Tom Shanklin, Gavin Henson, Kevin Morgan (soon) - although Henson, whom I regard as a top professional when he wants to be, needs to get his finger out a bit.
Shanklin is just a good all-round performer, always running good angles, and there's a rumour that another centre, Sonny Parker, wants to reconsider his international retirement. The only player I can think of who is struggling for fitness is Dafydd Jones, the Scarlets flanker. I do hope that I'm not tempting fate.
It means that for the first time for a few seasons, reputations will count for nothing. I know Rob Andrew, the new elite rugby director in England, has said something similar: that the old guard must produce the goods or risk losing their places.
Jenkins does not have to go automatically for those men who won the 2005 Grand Slam. I think the players need to be in form or they won't get selected, and I do like that. Even someone like Gareth Thomas, who hasn't played much for a few months, cannot expect to get in as of right.
For the same reason I don't see any need to hurry to pick a captain, even though Jenkins is under media pressure to do so. There is no point in it when they have a good number of leaders - Stephen Jones, Duncan Jones, Martyn Williams, to name three - to guide the rest in training.
Of course it wouldn't be Welsh rugby if there wasn't a big black cloud hanging around somewhere, and at the moment it's directly over my old club Llanelli. I got a day off school to watch the All Blacks get beaten at Stradey Park in 1973, and I played for the Scarlets from 1987 to 1989. Now they appear to have got themselves into a financial mess over selling the ground for housing to fund a new stadium. But the move to a new home is imperative because of revenue from corporate hospitality.
Just when things are going well in other respects, Welsh rugby cannot afford to go down to three regions, but it could happen if the Scarlets go into adminis-tration. The Welsh Rugby Union must help to head off the crisis.Reuse content