The home truths the Welsh must face

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The Independent Online

Most of the Welsh inquests into the hammering we took at Twickenham seem to have been founded on the principle that first you find a wrong tree and then you start barking up it as loud as you can. Thus have many come to the conclusion that the reason Wales lost is that they weren't as fit as the English - so it's the fault of the fitness coach.

Most of the Welsh inquests into the hammering we took at Twickenham seem to have been founded on the principle that first you find a wrong tree and then you start barking up it as loud as you can. Thus have many come to the conclusion that the reason Wales lost is that they weren't as fit as the English - so it's the fault of the fitness coach.

That, of course, is rubbish. The basic requirement of any top professional sportsman is to be ultra-fit. Your pride and self-discipline should see to that. A fitness coach can guide, encourage, motivate and set standards but the buck stops with the player. The coach can't sit with you all day and monitor everything you eat and drink. He can't force you out for a run in the rain, or push the weights up for you. You have to do it yourself if you want to succeed.

When I played I was always as fit as I could be. They say the modern game is more demanding but I think that I was as fit as any player performing today. And I wouldn't have dreamed of blaming anyone else if I wasn't.

It is too easy to blame fitness, or the lack of it. It saves looking for deeper, more serious reasons. In any case, what befalls two teams in a game of that magnitude can't be reduced to a simple difference in fitness. There's far more to it. Playing well and confidently can super-charge the effort you put in. Playing badly and without faith can have the opposite effect. Losers' legs always feel heavier than winners' legs.

I don't remember England running around like two-year-olds during the World Cup. When things don't go right the adrenalin doesn't flow. And if you aren't use to playing pacy rugby, all the fitness training in the book won't compensate. Nothing prepares you properly for a high-tempo match other than playing high-tempo matches regularly.

And this, I suspect, is where England have a clear edge. When all the Welsh wailing and backbiting has died down - and I'm sorry that so many ex-stars have been leading the chorus of insults - we might get down to a more constructive analysis of what's wrong.

We can start by facing the fact that we haven't improved in the two years since we last went to Twickenham and took a pasting. If anything the gap has got wider - we scored four tries two years ago and we never looked like scoring one last weekend.

This is not a criticism of Graham Henry - indeed, it is praise for what he achieved in between. But nothing can be sustained without strength in depth and the ability to maintain a high standard of competition week after week. I believe that Henry was helped last season by the fact that Cardiff and Swansea played as "rebels" in the Allied Dunbar League. Several key players were sharpened up by meeting the best English clubs week after week. It helped to create a standard that enabled Wales to beat France and England.

After that they went on atriumphant tour of Argentina and came back to beat South Africa, France, Canada and the USA. But during the World Cup and since they've looked increasingly jaded. England, who had an easy summer, have taken the opposite journey and look as fresh as daisies - and I don't mean daisies in a derogatory sense.

How we get back on track depends totally on how quickly we can reorganise our domestic game. To get our top clubs in a British League would be ideal, but the English don't seem to want that. I would have thought it was against their interests for the Celtic nations to lose strength, but England seem hell-bent on becoming the Glasgow Rangers of British and Irish rugby.

Wales will have to start looking to themselves and that means organising a more productive club structure. The trouble is that the Welsh Rugby Union spent so long concentrating on the Millennium Stadium and the World Cup they've taken their eyes off the ball at home.

We now have the situation in which we are creating some excellent players at youth and under-21 level only to watch them go into limbo. Unless a young player is in the first XV of one of the top clubs, he spends Saturday sitting on the bench or farmed out to a lower league club where he may get a run-around but no challenging rugby.

The top English clubs have reserve leagues where players can develop alongside senior players recovering from injury or lost form. Wales should have a top league of, say, 10 clubs, each with a semi-professional reserve team and an under-21 team. All the rest should be amateur and feed their best players into the local top club.

The best players would graduate to the top clubs and play in a higher standard even if they weren't in the first team. It is the only way to produce the number of players Wales need to stay in touch with the best. It is a long-term solution but it is about time Wales realised that it is long-term problem.

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