Jonathan Davies: Scarlet signs of domestic bliss - but beware the power players to come

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The Independent Online

The prospect of Leicester having to go to Cardiff Blues today to try to recover some pride for English club rugby shows how unpredictable and entertaining the season has become.

So gripping is the British and Irish scene that we seem scarcely to have noticed that New Zealand and Australia will be thundering around Twickenham and the Millennium Stadium next weekend. It's a healthy sign for our game that we are too preoccupied with settling our own affairs to start worrying about them yet.

The way Llanelli stopped Ulster at Stradey Park on Friday night was further evidence of how richly competitive our domestic rugby is, and that surely must bode well for the autumn internationals. This applies especially in Wales, where the regions have been reaching the levels of intensity required for success at this level. The result will be a Welsh squad who all seem fit, in form and with more strength in depth than they have been able to call upon in recent times.

Llanelli are a fine example. Their coach, Phil Davies, has them playing with a sense of adventure plus the ability to match the tempo of teams such as Ulster, London Irish and Toulouse. He has improved their play in the off-load so much. It's difficult to get used to releasing the ball at the right moment, and they got it wrong in one of their earlier games.

But the fluidity they achieved with their off-loading on Friday helped them overcome Ulster, and they would have won by a much bigger margin had they not botched up two tries by mis-handling on the line. This enabled David Humphreys to keep Ulster in the game with five penalties, and there was a time in the second half when his boot looked capable of winning the game. But Llanelli held firm, and I don't understand why they didn't go for a late drop goal, because that would have stopped Ulster getting a bonus point that may prove vital later.

The victory was a welcome boost for the new Welsh skipper, Stephen Jones, who must be heartened by the form of his squad. He and his Llanelli half-back partner Dwayne Peel are the hub of a team who have first-rate options in all departments, including their own.

Wales are very well off in front-five candidates, with two form hookers in Rhys Thomas and Matthew Rees. With Gethin Jenkins back to form they have four top props to choose from, and it is a similar story in the second and back rows.

The return of Kevin Morgan to full fitness and form is very encouraging. His angles of running are brilliant, and he would be my first choice at full-back.

With Gareth Thomas also fit to bring his organised and aggressive defence to any position and Shane Williams and Mark Jones playing so well, Wales have a strong and skilled back division. With Tom Shanklin back, the only position there is any doubt about is No 12. Normally, the main competitors for inside-centre would be Gavin Henson and James Hook, but neither has played enough and I believe that Llanelli's Gavin Evans will be given the chance.

He has played himself into contention and I am for trusting in-form players at this stage. Reputation should count for nothing against consistent form.

I believe this should apply to England as well. They tend to favour experience, but there are some very promising backs in the squad such as Olly Morgan, Shaun Perry and Toby Flood, and if they blend in some youth I'm sure they won't regret it. People are inclined to write off England but they are always going to be big, powerful and competitive, and they would have done better last season if they had been able to finish. New blood in the backs would help.

Australia and New Zealand will be bringing enough firepower to dampen the expectations of any team. There are rumours that Australia will be looking to experiment, but I don't believe they have any intention other than winning. For them, the World Cup starts here.

New Zealand will be of the same mind. In the build-up to the last World Cup, England put down their marker by winning Down Under. The will want to do precisely the same over here. Both domestically and internationally, the stark realities are having to be faced.

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