Llewellyn plays money game

Paul Trow says Welsh rugby has everything going for it but big finance
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The Independent Online
Normal service in Welsh rugby may not have resumed quite yet, but Neath returning to the top of the pile is a good start.

The Principality's very own All Blacks capped their most exciting season for a decade when they beat Pontypridd 45-25 at the Gnoll last week to win the Heineken League. That triumph, avenging the recent Swalec Cup final result, enabled Neath to edge out Cardiff on a superior try count. More importantly, it set the seal on Wales's most successful club season for years.

Not only have scorelines rocketed since the arrival of bonus points for tries, but the standard of play and the game's market-ability have also improved. The link between playing to win and trying to entertain is largely unrecognised in England, but the Neath captain, Gareth Llewellyn, is in no doubt that an expansive approach is the key to the future.

"At the start of the season, we all agreed we were in the entertainment business and needed to put bums on seats," said the 27-year-old lock forward. "We made a commitment as a club to play an exciting type of rugby whatever the results, and we won the title, which was a great bonus.

"The new system has certainly put more urgency into events on the field because teams have to keep chasing tries whether they are winning or losing. The game used to be a bit dull if a side got three or four tries up because they tended to ease up then. As the season went on, our form got better and better, and I don't think there's any argument that we are the best side in Wales."

Best side in Wales they may be, but Llewellyn will not revel in the adoration of his local community for long. In July, after returning from Wales's summer tour of Australia, he will pack his kitbag into his car, along with everything else the upwardly mobile modern player needs, and head for London to take up residence with sponsor-rich Harlequins.

A strong candidate for next year's British Lions party in South Africa, Llewellyn has put his career as a mechanical fitter on hold to join rugby's newly con- stituted professional fraternity.

Llewellyn admits that the money and the security of a four-year contract were vital ingredients in his decision. He has not exactly harboured a burning, lifelong desire to play for England's poshest club, but the move still excites him, and not just because of the income which he and his wife, Mara, a teacher, are anticipating.

He also believes it will make him a better player. "Being full time should improve my training and fitness, but the main factor in my move is finance," he said. "There just isn't enough money in Welsh rugby at the moment, even though Arwel Thomas is joining Swansea from Bristol."

None the less, the Welsh Rugby Union are worried Llewellyn and his fellow expatriates might not sustain their motivation and form after being seduced by bulging English cheque books.

Even though his prodigiously gifted Neath team-mate, the 20-year-old centre Leigh Davies, is mulling over a possible pounds 500,000, five-year contract with Bath, Llewellyn feels this view is a little alarmist. "My apartment in Kingston will be two hours' drive from the national squad sessions. If I lived in west Wales, it would take me almost as long to get there. And if the Anglo-Welsh leagues take off next season, I'll play in Wales quite a few times, anyway."

Llewellyn is convinced Welsh rugby is far healthier than when he won the first of his 45 caps nearly seven years ago. "There isn't much difference in the standard of the top English and Welsh clubs. In both leagues you have three clubs head and shoulders above everyone else and the rest are much of a muchness."

No prizes, then, for guessing which category he expects Quins to be in next season.