The only way forward is to reform system

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The Independent Online

Matches between Cardiff and Newport used to be titanic struggles drawing crowds of 40,000, and even in these troubled times, Cardiff's visit to Newport on New Year's Day produced a capacity crowd at Rodney Parade.

Matches between Cardiff and Newport used to be titanic struggles drawing crowds of 40,000, and even in these troubled times, Cardiff's visit to Newport on New Year's Day produced a capacity crowd at Rodney Parade.

Those fans felt justly miffed when Cardiff fielded a complete reserve side. The home fans would have been delighted at Newport's 31-3 victory but they would have joined in the general confusion about what the hell is going on in the game.

It wouldn't have happened in England because their game has a simple structure of two levels, the Zurich Premiership and the Heineken Cup. Clubs still give key players a rest when the opportunity arises – but never the entire team.

Wales, of course, have three layers: the Welsh Premiership, the Celtic League and the Heineken. Wednesday's match was a Welsh Premiership fixture and because Cardiff faced a Celtic League semi-final against Neath yesterday they felt justified in keeping their first team out of action.

You can imagine the riot if Leicester played Northampton on a New Year's Day and that sort of thing happened. It's just another symptom of the mess the Welsh game is in and why it has to be sorted out rapidly.

As it happened, Cardiff played very well and their young reserves looked very promising. That's another urgent reason for the proposed reforms.

Those players now return to the shadows. If we introduce a new top layer of four regional or club sides and have a First Division of the existing teams, they would play for Cardiff in a semi-professional league that would give them a regular opportunity to prove their worth.

The same would apply to all other promising Welsh youngsters, and the clear path to progress we had when I was a young player would be restored. At the moment, everyone in Welsh rugby seems to be wallowing around in the murky middle waters and getting nowhere.

Once we reform the structure, we can get rid of the comfort zones and try to ensure that players learn to live with pressure. This is neither a new nor an easy problem and affects players in every squad everywhere.

I found the Swansea-Neath game in Christmas week very interesting in providing an insight into how difficult it is. Swansea have two outside-halves, Arwel Thomas and Gavin Henson, who are both very good on their day. Arwel is regarded as the No 1 but he wasn't playing great against Neath and Gavin replaced him to such good effect that he was man of the match.

Gavin has a lot of ability and at 15 stone is a powerful force. He tackles well and kicks long and accurately. But a few days later he was first choice against Bridgend and wasn't anything like as effective. Why? When he came on to replace Arwel, he had nothing to lose, and that lack of pressure makes all the difference. Against Bridgend a repeat performance was expected from him, and suddenly the pressure was ratcheted up many notches.

I'm not saying that he can't handle it, but at the top level you have to prove that you can time and again. Being a deputy is nothing like being a No 1 in terms of pressure and responsibility.

I've experienced this in my own career. When I left Llanelli for rugby league my successor was Colin Stephens, who had many admirers, not least me. But although he went on to play for Wales I felt he never realised his full potential because the pressure told.

Carlos Spencer was a terrific understudy to New Zealand outside-half Andrew Mehrtens, but although he gained 20 or so caps for the All Blacks he never fulfilled his great promise. Obviously, it is better to be No 1 from the start and learn to live with the pressure. However good you are, it is not easy to catch up when your chance finally arrives.

That's why I'm in favour of a strong support league. Sitting on the replacements' bench and waiting your turn might bring a touch of temporary glory, but there's nothing like being out there and doing it.

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