Half speed ahead for Wales

Rugby League
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The Independent Online
This is a hugely significant week for rugby league in Wales - one which will go a long way towards determining whether the code will continue its recent revival there.

On Wednesday in Carcassonne, the Welsh national team begins its defence of the European Championship that it won by beating France in the same city last March. Three days later, and long overdue, Cardiff will have its first chance to see top-class club rugby league as it is now played, when Sheffield Eagles take their "home" match against the Super League leaders, St Helens, to the Arms Park.

The Welsh team that will face France will illustrate the turbulent 15 months since they won their first Championship for 57 years.

Defections back to rugby union have deprived the Welsh coach, Clive Griffiths, of Jonathan Davies, Kevin Ellis, Jonathan Griffiths, Phil Ford and Adrian Hadley, while Scott Quinnell, also destined for union at Richmond, asked not to be considered. Throw in Allan Bateman's departure for Australia and injuries to the likes of Kelvin Skerrett and Paul Moriarty and it is clear that Griffiths has a big rebuilding job ahead of him.

It is always possible to find a few more players with a Welsh grandparent, but that is not a long-term answer. Griffiths, who also wears the hat of coach of the South Wales side at present playing in the Second Division, firmly believes that the only guarantee of future stability and success for the national team lies in establishing a Super League club in Cardiff.

Saturday's double bill, with South Wales playing Carlisle before the Eagles-Saints match, will be a good indication of the level of support for his scheme. Welsh supporters have turned out in force for internationals involving their side since it was re-formed in 1991. Griffiths is convinced that they will do the same for South Wales versus Wigan or Leeds.

"The level of interest is very high," Griffiths said. "People want Super League in South Wales; they are going mad for it. And it is the only way that we can cultivate our own players." It is maddening for him, therefore that a game which has been known to change its rules overnight and decide to switch to summer at a couple of hours notice cannot make a decision on South Wales' application until 3 July.

Griffiths's fear is that much of the momentum behind the project could be lost by then. If they had the go-ahead, he says, rugby union players of the calibre of Rupert Moon as well as Scott Gibbs, a league convert who wants to return to Wales, would be on board, which would make his job a little easier. "But all this waiting is doing us no good at all," he said.

Worse than that, some of Super League's more parochial clubs would rather be playing the team down the road than one at the other end of the country next season, thinking which would take the game and the Welsh, in particular, several steps back.

"If they want an M62 league, they can keep it like that," Griffiths said, who knows the future of the national side depends on such blinkered counsels being over-ruled. "Otherwise, we could go back to the days of picking Welsh sides from 18 fit players," he warned. "After the distance we have come - winning the European Championship, reaching the semi-finals of the World Cup - I couldn't stomach that." l Bobbie Goulding, the St Helens scrum-half and captain, is out of the game for three weeks with a broken collar bone and may miss their match with Wigan on 21 June.

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