Welsh giants ready to rumble onwards and upwards

Click to follow
The Independent Online

It's a little early to be picking up the vibes of a new season, but even in mid-August there are the unmistakable signs of optimism in Welsh club rugby. It would be wrong to read too much into Cardiff's impressive victory over Leicester in their "champions" clash last weekend, because it was very much a cobweb-blowing exercise, but there is a positive feeling from every direction that this could be a good season,particularly for the top four clubs.

It's a little early to be picking up the vibes of a new season, but even in mid-August there are the unmistakable signs of optimism in Welsh club rugby. It would be wrong to read too much into Cardiff's impressive victory over Leicester in their "champions" clash last weekend, because it was very much a cobweb-blowing exercise, but there is a positive feeling from every direction that this could be a good season,particularly for the top four clubs.

What is important is that the Welsh-Scottish League gets off to a solid start this week, because this still-new domestic competition has to provide the platform for the big tests to come in the European cups.

The two Scottish district teams will have an important role to play in setting higher standards in the forthcoming campaign. Frankly, Edinburgh and Glasgow did not really play up to their potential last season, and this was reflected in the poor overall showing of the Scottish national side. But this time they seem to be emulating the Irish and recruiting more of their own players, and it would be unlike the Scots if they were not up for it this time. Everybody in Wales wants them to do well, and looks forward to both countries' games growing in mutual benefit.

Although I foresee all the Welsh clubs in the league showing an improvement, I think only the top four will have the resources and the stamina to carry them through what is going to be a long haul.

Cardiff haven't made many new signings, but the South African centre Pieter Muller joins an exciting back division that is going to be a powerful weapon in their armoury. Three young players are going to take the eye - Jamie Robertson, Craig Morgan and Rhys Williams have already shown their worth, and if they can blend quickly with the more experienced and established players in the squad, Cardiff are going to be a handful for anyone.

They have an excellent pack, and we will be watching to see if they have learned how to inject quicker tempo and speed of thought into their game. Lack of those qualities was so cruelly exposed by Llanelli in the quarter-finals of the European Cup last season that Cardiff will not dare be caught out again.

Llanelli can be relied upon to build on their great European run, in which they were denied in the semi-final against Northampton only by Paul Grayson's penalty in the fourth minute of injury time. No one could argue that they didn't deserve to reach the final, and they would have been strengthened by the experience.

They also have a fine prospect in the winger Mark Jones, who shone on that very worthwhile Welsh development tour of Canada in June. Unfortunately, they have had a setback with the loss of the Irish flanker Simon Easterby with an Achilles problem, although it is some consolation that they have acquired Simon's brother, Guy, to cover Rupert Moon at scrum-half.

Moon has by no means finished with the Scarlets and I expect another fervent season from him. I had the pleasure of playing in his testimonial match at Stradey Park recently. It was great fun, but quite an eye-opener. Players from the Seventies, Eighties and Nineties took part and, although it is only a few years since I retired, I was amazed at how much bigger and fitter the players have become.

I knew that a few seasons of full-time training had had an effect on the game, but it is not until you get among the present crop on the pitch that you realise quite how much things have changed.

The biggest difference is in the players' physique. I was used to having big men around me, but the size and shape of the present lot is amazing, especially among the backs. Not only are they big, they can move more quickly. Every rugby generation has its good points, but this bunch certainly have a distinct physical edge over us old-timers.

As for the other leading Welsh sides, Swansea could be a difficult proposition for any team. They were a disappointment last season, but I expect much better from them in the year ahead. They have taken on good reinforcements who are going to be very competitive in crucial positions. Geraint Lewis, from Pontypridd, and Hywel Jenkins, from Llanelli, will strengthen the back row, while Ceryth Rees will push Arwel Thomas at outside-half. The contribution of the former rugby league coach Clive Griffiths, who will be masterminding the defensive strategy, is certain to be a big influence.

Perhaps the biggest improvement could be seen at Newport, where they have a blend of experience and youth that could produce an extremely tough unit. They were close to the breakthrough last season and could now be ready to explode. They will have the benefit of Shane Howarth without having to lose him to international calls. He will probably play at stand-off, a position which will allow him to have more impact on their play. With players of the calibre of Gary Teichman, and his South African countryman Adrian Garvey at prop, they willnot be hitting the new season with anything but full force.

Comments