Let eight cross the Severn

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The Independent Online
MY rugby autumns are bathed in a golden glow which has now disappeared. Instead all is fierce struggle, earnest endeavour, bad temper. I have liked Bristol's spirit; wondered why it is that Harlequins still remain less than the sum of their parts; admired but failed to love Bath, who are approaching New Zealand in their single-mindedness; and asked why Wasps' talented players make so many mistakes.

Nevertheless, the standard of English club rugby is, I would estimate, 75 per cent higher than it was, say, 10 years ago. The backs are heavier but no faster and arguably less skilful than they were then. The change has occurred among the forwards, who are not only more skilful but fitter, faster and, above all, bigger - possibly too big, though I do not want to enter the Neil Back controversy.

Despite (to some extent because of) this improvement, moments of magic have been few. The most potent cry before a match is not 'they're trying out a new scrum-half' but, rather, 'Geoff Cooke is in the stand today'.

The general reason for this dour state of affairs lies in the leagues, of which (do not mistake me) I am a supporter. The particular and connected reason lies in the decline - indeed, the virtual disappearance - of Anglo-Welsh fixtures. When these matches do take place, clubs tend to put out their second XVs.

In pre-league days, September saw Coventry play Newport and Cardiff, Swansea Bristol and Moseley, and Llanelli Harlequins and Bath. In October, Harlequins would take on Swansea and Cardiff, who also played Northampton. Bedford had unsmart fixtures with Ebbw Vale at home, Pontypool away, though they also had an away game at Llanelli. Swansea visited Leicester, Newport Gloucester, Newbridge Saracens, and Neath Sale.

These were just the principal Anglo-Welsh fixtures for the first two months of the season. They would continue throughout the winter and spring. But it is the autumn I remember: for the three chief Welsh clubs (whether judged historically or by current performance), Llanelli, Swansea and Cardiff, visited Twickenham to play Harlequins.

The matches were played in those days, not at the Stoop Memorial, but at HQ. Some people, notably the Quins players themselves, did not care for the echoing

atmosphere, even with a crowd of getting on for 10,000 (which both Llanelli and London Welsh could draw in those days). To me, however, the ground had the melancholic charm of a seaside resort out of season. There were ghosts everywhere.

I particularly remember the Llanelli matches, which took place in mid-September. The weather always seemed to be fine. Llanelli were usually expected to win, but did not invariably manage to do so. Halfway through the second half Norman Gale and one or two other forwards would have trouble with their boots - very serious trouble, which entailed sitting down on the pitch for a well-deserved breather.

There tended to be a bit of tension between David Wrench and the Llanelli front row; though Graham Murray, the Quins' loose-head, always seemed to be a perfect gentleman, which may be why this gifted prop never played for England.

Sometimes Llanelli would try out players, backs rather than forwards, who were barely out of school. I remember Clive Rees's debut at 18. He had very long and rather greasy hair, was very fast and was clearly going to play for Wales.

This fixture produced some of the best rugby I have ever seen, comparable to that of the service internationals at St Helens, Swansea, in the mid-1940s. But it is usually a mistake to go back and try to recapture old times - except in writing. The future lies in leagues.

I do not think that the idea of an Anglo-Welsh league is feasible. What is possible is an Anglo-Welsh knock-out cup, of eight clubs, the top four from each country. Why are we waiting?