The Irish debacle has left a sour taste in the mouth of the Welsh rugby public mainly because of the lack of effort and skill shown by the players. On all message boards and fans’ websites these players are lauded each week by those who now criticise their performance, yet no matter how badly Geraint Lewis plays for Wales as soon as he puts his club jersey on his fans from Swansea and Pontypridd will jump to his defence. Unfortunately his example is repeated throughout the squad this results in a comfort zone for players – minor celebrities in their own back yard but unheard of in international sport.
The best examples of this are Ben Evans and Rhys Williams whose promising careers have slipped badly. They believe the hype created by their fans at club level. Now Evans is more likely to be seen opening supermarkets than propping for Wales and only this week Williams claimed in the South Wales Echo to be happy with his form this season, despite having many disasters and losing his place in the Welsh team!
Much of the blame for this awful defeat must be levied at the feet of the Welsh public who have inflated the egos of these players. Each player’s ability in the Welsh squad is vastly overestimated – a direct result of conceited, complacent, village rivalry. Debates rage as to whether Dai Young should retire, Shane Williams should be picked, Stephen Jones should play outside half rather than how can these players can improve on their performances! Ponty fans still, to this day, rate Geraint Lewis as a good player but Saturday put his skills into context. He is the classic example of a player hyped up beyond his ability. He can shine in the Village League as he strolls around the pitch benefiting from a strong front five and a slow paced game. When graft was needed and tackles were there to be made he was completely shell shocked and out of his depth, giving his opponents a field day. Shane Williams is another massively over rated player who was caught with ease by Wallace. Shane Who? has proved to be a very apt comment. Gavin Henson is another who has proved nothing at all, yet he still bounds around with his silly hair when he should be studying Johnny Wilkinson so that he can improve his game.
The way forward …..
The only way to avoid this happening for future generations is to have fewer full time professional clubs in Wales who receive funding from the Union. Below the franchised few who are guaranteed entry into the European Cup the game should be completely amateur and the Union should stop funding these clubs. The money wasted in clubs below the Village League is shocking and this would be better used by the professional set up. Franchising will prevent promotion apart from the opportunity to bid for the franchise when it is up for renewal.
FIVE full time professional clubs in Wales will allow 175 players to be contracted to the franchised clubs. A squad of 35 at each club will allow plenty of competition for places and cover for injuries, plus room for two quality non-European professionals from which the squad can learn. Benefits incline:
More competition for places
At present Ceri Sweeney is guaranteed first choice rugby at Ponty because there is not another recognized outside half in the Squad. It is not surprising, therefore, that many Ponty fans criticise his performance and claim that his game has degenerated. Last year he had to battle with Lee Jarvis for the first choice jersey, meaning that he had to perform at each training session and during each game so that he could impress the coach. That motivation has now gone. The same happened with Wales and it’s no surprise that the best run for Henry was when he first arrived. Players were hungry to impress and performed at their highest ability level so as to insure their place in the first team. Howley was dropped and he learnt the lesson. Competition means that you always have to be at your best and that you always have to strive to better your performance.
More cover for injuries
This is where rugby can learn a lesson from football which has learnt that a strong squad increases performance and prevents the wakening of the team because of injuries. With Swansea’s recent injury crisis in the back row it meant little competition for Geraint Lewis and Colin Charvis – clearly reflected in their performances. It is vital that when injuries occur, players of a similar ability replace them. Classic Welsh examples of this are Neath and Pontypridd who will challenge the best when their full team is available yet two key injuries will ruin their season. When a poor player enters a team he drags the others down to his level, which ruins confidence and makes teams lose.
Higher levels of training
It is only at training sessions that players will work on their weaknesses so as to improve their game. By training with high quality players and higher quality coaches, performance levels will increase. In Wales, Jamie Robinson has improved quickly under the guidance of Pieter Muller and Neil Jenkins yet Shane Williams has still remained at Neath, where he is the superstar. Who’s going to coach Shane on the essentials of wing play? Who’s going to force the best from him at club level? Iestyn Harris has already trained with the Welsh squad and Graham Henry and this will only help his game.
Removal of the ego
It is often said that certain players who arrive at Cardiff have talentectomies and that they spend their time sitting on the bench. This is because of two main reasons: firstly, before joining Cardiff the player was a big fish in a small pond which always makes him look good. Suddenly he arrives at Cardiff Arms Park and he is no longer the best player, no longer the highest earner, no longer the only superstar and many people cannot handle having their ego dented in this fashion. Rather than believe that they can learn from their teammates and become a better player again so as to become the superstar and the highest paid player in the Best club, they sulk and their Welsh Village attitude shines through. Demotivated rather than inspired. Now they are happy to accept their wage and see their contract through, sulking and claiming that the spell at Cardiff was a disaster. Lee Jarvis is a perfect example of this so he returned to the Village at Pontypridd where everybody welcomed him with open arms and told him how good he was. Now, Neath offered him more money and he can’t handle it at Neath because the coach told him that he has to tackle! His ego is holding him back. In Japan, his performances were average at best and he couldn’t raise his game to claim the number 10 jersey for the test matches.
Fewer poor overseas players
The recent spate of injuries at Cardiff meant a rush of new signings had to be made after the season had started. All the Welsh players were under contract and so unavailable, meaning that the club scoured France, New Zealand, Samoa and Graham Henry’s house. With a draft system meaning that, for example, Gareth Wyatt would have been drafted in from the amateur Pontypridd then Welsh talent would have had a chance to grow into professional rugby. Michael Owen would have replaced Scott Quinnell rather than Llanelli drafting in an aging Amercian.
More quality overseas players
The number of excellent overseas players in Wales who have succeeded at the highest level of performance for Welsh clubs can probably be counted on the fingers of two hands. Muller, Baugh and Tait at Cardiff, Teichmann, Raiwalui and Snow at Newport and Parker at Pontypridd are the exceptions. With fewer clubs then the poorer examples would be replaced by Welsh talent yet there would be more money available for higher quality examples as has been shown in England.
The obvious answer is for these five teams to play in the Celtic League, European Cup and Domestic Cup throughout a structured season. With 5 Welsh, 4 Irish and 3 Scottish, a”Super 12″ competition could run from September to January on the same lines as the Southern Hemisphere competition. The Domestic Cup would run simultaneously allowing three amateur teams to join at the Quarter Final stages with the final in the Spring. With a revamped European Cup running from January to March (with four pools of six instead of the present ludicrous structure) and the Six Nations at the end of the season, we’d be in danger of having a decent structure to our sport.
But can this happen? As we learned following the missed opportunities of the British League, there’s too many leaches feeding off the blood of Welsh Rugby – too many pigs in the trough. The money is filtering into the pockets of individuals who have no part to play in a professional sport. Vested interest is making change impossible. The game is only surviving because individuals are willing to put their hard-earned money into the game. Can change be negotiated in this environment? What is the future for Welsh rugby? How much more to we have to suffer before the pigs in the trough end up in a Peter’s Pie?