Divided loyalties weary the Welsh

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The Independent Online
When the new Wales management say they have to work with what they've got, they mean the unforgiving Welsh fixture list just as much as the personnel they will be taking to South Africa for the World Cup, writes Steve Bale.

That this afternoon's Swalec Cup semi-finals between Cardiff and Swansea at Llanelli and Llanelli and Pontypridd at Cardiff come only eight days before what used to be the end of the season as well as April makes the point.

The Welsh Rugby Union found a way this season of clearing most pre-international weekends of First Division fixtures but now that Wales are barely three weeks from departure the accumulated fatigue of an incessant eight months can be clearly seen.

This Welsh season did not even wait until September but instead kicked off in August so as to incorporate an interminable programme of 22 league games and a tour by South Africa plus the cup rounds which will culminate in today's winners meeting at the Arms Park in a fortnight.

In between, there is the final set of league matches to negotiate and far be it for the new manager, Geoff Evans, or any of the new coaches to be asking for anything to be done about it. Well, how could they? Alex Evans may be coach of Wales but he is also coach of Cardiff; Mike Ruddock and Dennis John, his Wales assistants, are coaches of Swansea and Pontypridd.

Lucky Allan Lewis, then. The Llanelli coach has not had to contend with the divided loyalties of his three semi-final counterparts, who recently displaced the old managerial partnership of Alan Davies, Gareth Jenkins and Robert Norster. Is it really only 26 days since the deed was done?

"I must admit it has been rather difficult to concentrate on club matters since all this started," Ruddock said. He deserves sympathy, or at any rate Swansea do, because in this of all weeks when the All Whites should have been preparing unencumbered for their clash with Cardiff he has had to be otherwise engaged.

Wales's provisional World Cup squad trained on Sunday and Monday. The final squad announcement came on Tuesday and there was another squad session for the 26 plus 10 stand-by players on Wednesday. In between, Ruddock had to fit in training for Swansea's biggest game yet this season.

This is not special pleading. Alex Evans now has precisely the same set of temporarily incompatible priorities with Cardiff, as does John with Pontypridd. In fact if anyone deserves our sympathy it is John, who unlike the other two is not an employee of his club and has to juggle his shifts as an ambulance-driver in order to be present, whether that means club or country.

Still, incestuous as Welsh rugby may be, no one can complain at the identities of today's semi-finalists and it may even do the World Cup players some good to forget the great event for a while.

Form suggests a Cardiff-Pontypridd final but Ponty have never beaten the Scarlets in seven cup ties and it is also about time Swansea, cup- winners once in 23 years but league champions twice in four, find a knock- out punch. Only figuratively, though.