Wales take a refresh view

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The Independent Online

One of the reasons that Welsh clubs have enjoyed such a impressive run of successes in the first batch of Heineken European Cup matches is that so many of their top players came into the season refreshed by a long summer break.

One of the reasons that Welsh clubs have enjoyed such a impressive run of successes in the first batch of Heineken European Cup matches is that so many of their top players came into the season refreshed by a long summer break.

The Welsh fitness coach, Peter Herbert, was telling me the other day that the English camp were envious of the time in the close season in which the Welsh were able to take a breather and work on gradually picking up their fitness for the new season.

England, in contrast, had a demanding tour of South Africa and although they did exceptionally well it would have taken its toll physically. And it didn't help when the English started their club season a week earlier than Wales.

So, it is no wonder that the Welsh boys have been a touch sprightlier. There has been another bonus for Wales, too. While most of the top Welsh stars were having their break, Wales took their younger players on a development tour of Canada that turned out to be a very useful exercise.

Their coach Graham Henry was able to take a close look at them and spend time working with them individually. As a result, the youngsters entered the season suitably encouraged and full of enthusiasm. A few of them have certainly caught the eye in recent weeks and will be challenging for places in the senior squad.

I said before the season began that I sensed a feel-good factor in Welsh rugby and that feeling has grown. It certainly wouldn't have been harmed last week when Henry announced the three Welsh squads for the matches against Samoa, New Zealand A and the development game against the USA.

They were each of a quality that would not have been thought possible two years ago and shows how much progress the Welsh game has made under Henry's influence. The three games take place on 10, 11 and 14 November - so in the space of five days he will be able to run the rule over 50 or so players in competitive action before naming his squad for the South Africa match on 26 November.

England will not take as much heart as the Welsh from their European Cup experiences but I am sure that the motivation they get from putting on the white shirt again will compensate for recent disappointments at club level.

They are going to be a force this winter and you only have to look at their options at second row to get a flavour of their strength. Players such as Danny Grewcock, Ben Kay, Simon Shaw and Steve Borthwick look to be in awesome form and that's before you even think of established men like Martin Johnson and Garath Archer.

Scotland, who were in action against the USA yesterday, will have a harder job to get any inspiration from the European outings of Edinburgh and Glasgow whereas the Irish, as usual, will take great confidence from the performances of their provincial teams.

Leinster and Munster are leading their Heineken Cup groups and Ulster still have a say in theirs. It is a tremendous help to have such a solid basis for your national side and be also able to bring in exiles like Keith Wood and Newport's Matt Mostyn.

My only regret is that the authorities have seen fit to interrupt the group stage of the Heineken Cup. The first four rounds of games had been so exciting that it seems a crime to call a halt and stage the final two games in January.

We could have easily delayed the internationals by a week or two and finished the groups while the intensity of the tournament and the public interest was at its full height. Clubs have now got to recover that momentum in three months time which might not prove easy. The season is slowly taking better shape but it is not yet right.

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