The winter mission: learn from the Lions

Northern game's biggest challenge is to match the pace of the south
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The Independent Online

The theory will be put to the test in the autumn when Graham Henry's squad bid for a grand slam against Wales, England, Scotland and Ireland. For the Welsh, who lost a 51-point thriller by a point to the All Blacks in Cardiff 10 months ago before going on to complete a clean sweep in the Six Nations, the new season has all the makings of an epic voyage.

The match against New Zealand at the Millennium Stadium on 5 November celebrates 100 years of Test rugby between the countries and lights the blue touch-paper to the WRU's 125th anniversary. On the following consecutive weekends Wales also play host to Fiji, South Africa and Australia.

They will have to pace themselves. With the Celtic League, the new Anglo-Welsh Powergen Cup, in which England's Premiership clubs will take on the Principality's four regions, the Heineken Cup and a considerable Test programme, the leading players, if they are still standing, will be required to make up to 40 appearances.

"It's a very big workload, but I'm hoping that greater exposure will benefit the players," Mike Ruddock, the Wales coach, said. "The level of competition is exciting. I think we're all going to be riding a rollercoaster. In the Super 12 and the Tri-Nations the southern-hemisphere teams have raised the bar. We'll know more after the autumn."

Ruddock was invited by Sir Clive to join the Lions party and politely declined. It was one of his wisest decisions. "I don't really want to go into what happened to the Lions," Ruddock said. "That's for other people. It's happened before and it will happen again. Everybody's got to move on.

"I don't think the players were harmed by the experience. They played against the best and were exposed to different ideas and different coaches. Whether things go to plan or not it's how you handle it that's important. You should emerge from that environment with a bit more maturity. Not so long ago Wales lost 10 games on the trot, but they stuck together.

"All the players I've spoken to who were in New Zealand remained very positive. I thought that Michael Owen and Martyn Williams might have been a bit down because they didn't make the Test team, but there was none of that. They're looking to the next challenge."

From what he saw of New Zealand, Stephen Jones, the stand-off, says that Wales will have to play better against the Tri-Nations teams than against the Six Nations ones. "I think he's right," Ruddock said. "We had very close games against South Africa and New Zealand but both have improved. Daniel Carter was a novice when we played against him and look at him now." The last time Jonny Wilkinson came up against Carter the Englishman was again in need of tlc after being forced to retire in the second half of the Second Test, leaving his opposite number to run the show.

When the Guinness Premiership comes on tap on Friday evening with Newcastle's visit to Sale, Wilkinson, even if fit after his appendix flared up in Japan, and his fellow Lion Charlie Hodgson are likely to be missing from the bill, a direct result of the Elite Player Scheme 11-week recommendation for rest.

In the Premiership on Saturday, the double-header at Twickenham features Wasps against Saracens and London Irish versus Leeds. After returning from New Zealand, where he coached the unbeaten Lions midweek side, Ian McGeechan took Wasps to Poland for a week's training camp. In succeeding Warren Gatland, who coached Wasps to a hat-trick of Premiership titles, McGeechan has the toughest act to follow.

Reflecting on the Lions tour, the Scotsman says that New Zealand benefited from having a trinity of coaches, Henry, Steve Hansen and Wayne Smith, who learnt a few things while in Britain.

"Two years ago, New Zea-land tended to be a bit one-dimensional," McGeechan said. "They would run every-thing and get caught out, which is what happened to them in the World Cup. Since then, the experience gained by their coaches in the northern hemisphere has helped them. They targeted the All Blacks' forward play as something to strengthen and married it to the pace and skill of the Super 12, so what you saw in the team that faced the Lions was the best of both hemispheres.

"They had the balance right, players who are not only good one-on-one but who are also very powerful. And technically they do the right things in contact, at breakdowns and in the set-pieces. I don't think this would have happened a few years ago, because they wouldn't have entertained coaches who had worked in England or Wales.

"The Tests show how competitive the game is out there. We've got to keep thinking about where our game is and what we want to do to improve. The New Zealand squad is just maturing, whereas here we've lost a lot of experienced players quickly. The Lions had some very, very good players but they are probably a year or two off their peak in terms of international experience. While our players are still on the up, the New Zealanders are there."

Sir Clive, of course, from his new berth at Southampton, will have an eye on Twicken-ham when the All Blacks come calling. In his graceless postscript to the Lions series he said: "It will be interesting to see how the All Blacks perform away from home and out of season. There's no gulf between the countries. I only judge teams like New Zealand in World Cups, where we're all on the same stage."

The hangover is still hurting, although Ruddock, who was nurturing a young team in North America, managed to avoid so much as a whiff of the barmaid's apron. Wales open their defence of the Six Nations in the new year against England at Twickenham.

"It's a constant race," Ruddock said, "and so far we've won the first lap. It will be harder the second time around, and if you stand still you'll get knocked off. We were very lucky to beat England last season, but it was such an important win; it gave us the confidence.

"England are lying in wait for us and we will build towards that game through our performances in the autumn. This is not a team that is breaking up. I think we can improve."