Winning friendlies and influencing people

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The Independent Online
WHAT MADE Cardiff's match against Saracens very special last week is that the English cup holders fielded their best team. In that context, Cardiff's achievement in putting 40 points on them was significant. You only had to see the shock on the faces of Francois Pienaar and Nigel Wray to understand the importance of the result.

I sat in the press box and it was interesting to listen to the reaction of the rugby writers. A strong argument was that Saracens, one of the best all-round sides in the Allied Dunbar Premiership, weren't up for it.

That, of course, is the crucial issue. The matches involving Cardiff and Swansea, the cuckoos in the English nest, are extraordinary, not least because they are played on league weekends but there are not points at stake. The key question is, are the English clubs mentally prepared for it?

I have no doubt that Saracens went to the Arms Park with one thing in mind - victory. What a lot of press men don't understand is what goes through players' minds. When you turn up at a venue which has 10,000 spectators and a fantastic atmosphere there is no question that you don't want to play.

There may not be any points for winning but there is a huge incentive called self-respect. Saracens didn't just come down a few hours before the match. They stayed at a hotel in Cardiff on Friday and went through all their normal pre-game routines. In other words they treated it just as importantly as if they were playing at Bath. There was a big scalp to be taken.

The fact is that Cardiff were the better side and the argument about Saracens not being 100 per cent competitive goes out of the window. The game was a great success for rugby in general and for Cardiff and Wales in particular, and Swansea's win at Wasps the following day was also important.

In the openers against Bedford and West Hartlepool, Cardiff and Swansea couldn't have wished for a better start and last weekend the serious business started. The situation may change later in the season when the English clubs will want to rest key players but at the moment they want to build momentum. It is serious all right.

The turning point at Cardiff came when Saracens were leading 9-6 and had a scrum under the post. The pressure was building on Cardiff, the scrum kept collapsing and it looked as if they would concede a penalty try. Instead the referee awarded a penalty to Cardiff - a Saracens prop was boring in on his opponent - and it had an effect on the whole game.

I think scrummaging is going to be a problem area for officials throughout the season. I understand that the same referees will be employed for the return matches and that's another potential problem area. The teams will know what the ref is like and will play to his strengths and weaknesses. In the second half Cardiff were far more enterprising and looked a lot sharper. Nobody would have forecast that scoreline.

When I went to Australia to play rugby league it took me three weeks to adjust to the quicker pace and there is no doubt the game in England is quicker than anywhere else in Britain. Last week Cardiff showed that not only have they picked up the pace but their defence is a lot tighter. They have also learnt not to commit too many players to rucks and mauls and this allows them to vary their depth in attack.

Every week is going to be like a cup game for Cardiff and Swansea and on an individual level Lee Jarvis had everything to play for. I think he is the best goal-kicker in the world and the best kicker out of hand since Gareth Davies. He has the potential to be the best outside-half in Wales but they've got to work on his deficiencies. He can be a match loser as well as a match winner. Sometimes his defence and positional play are suspect but above all he needs more confidence. He has to realise just how good he can be.

The arrival of Paul Burke can help Jarvis achieve his goal. He's hardly been mentioned in international terms, although I think the basis of the Wales team will come from Cardiff and Swansea even if that may be an uncomfortable thought for the WRU. Graham Henry, Wales' new coach, is a realist. He thoroughly enjoyed the Cardiff-Saracens match and he appreciates that the standard was higher than in the majority of league games in Wales. Henry's in an awkward situation. On the differences between Cardiff and Swansea and the WRU he has to be seen to be politically correct. Publicly, of course, he is not in favour of the breakaway but I'm sure he understands the reasons. Too many players are being paid in Wales. You should reward success, not mediocrity.

Meanwhile, points or no points, an unofficial league table has appeared in the Western Mail and for Cardiff supporters at least it makes interesting reading.

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