Ready for a low-key kick-off

Rugby Union: Steve Bale says Wales needs more than their league, which opens today
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The Independent Online
As the Heineken League is nowadays condemned by all and sundry as inadequate for the apparently impossible task of developing a successful Wales team, you might wonder why they bother. The answer is, for now, it's all they've got.

The league begins this afternoon, with the First Division truncated to three matches by the absence of the international squad in South Africa. Pontypridd, last season's runners-up in cup as well as league, kick off at home to promoted Ebbw Vale; the Second Division champions, Aberavon, are at Newport and there is a Gwent derby between Abertillery and Newbridge.

This is relentlessly low-key but when even the highest rugby authorities in the land have come to regard Heineken as a foothill rather than a pinnacle, why should anyone bother to be enthusiastic? The Welsh are paying the price for previously regarding their league as the end of the journey as opposed to a step on the way.

It was obvious from the outset that Welsh rugby's well-being needed its new league to develop in time into an Anglo-Welsh league followed by a pan-European competition. This is not being clever after the event: when the league was launched in 1990 Ron Waldron, then Wales coach, was asked at a press conference whether he would like to see it develop along those lines.

As it happened, Waldron said he would. But before he had managed to answer Denis Evans, the famously irascible Welsh Rugby Union secretary of the time, blurted out: "For God's sake, we've only just got this going." Or words to that effect.

No one could accuse Welsh administrators of the past decade or two of having a long-term vision, though at least that has now changed. The pilot European Rugby Cup beginning at the end of next month and involving Cardiff, the champions, Pontypridd and Swansea, the cup holders, is a significant progression from more familiar incestuousness and sterility.

Next season it will be still better, with Scottish and more particularly English participation, with a handsome television deal in the offing which will go some way towards financing the more successful clubs in these newly professional times. Alas, this does not say much for the Heineken League, though an attempt is being made to induce adventure by awarding extra points for try-scoring: one for three or four, two for five or six and three for seven or more.

"Wales have been pushing very hard for a competition which is outside our area of jurisdiction," Vernon Pugh, the WRU chairman, said. "We think it absolutely essential to give our clubs and players experience of what has been a moving target elsewhere, because there is no doubt the quality of play at this level in other countries has moved ahead quicker than it has in Wales."

In other words a domestic league can no longer be expected to bridge the gap to international rugby - and it is no insult to Heineken to say so, because in England they are now saying much the same about the Courage Championship, which starts next Saturday.

HEINEKEN LEAGUE

FIRST DIVISION

1994/95 FINAL TABLE

P W D L Tr Pts

Cardiff 22 18 0 4 81 36

Pontypridd 22 17 0 5 59 34

Treorchy 22 13 0 9 49 26

Neath 22 12 2 8 33 26

Bridgend 22 12 1 9 25 25

Swansea 22 12 0 10 55 24

Llanelli 22 10 0 12 67 20

Newport 22 9 0 13 31 18

Newbridge 22 8 0 14 37 16

Abertillery 22 8 0 14 29 16

Dunvant 22 7 1 14 36 15

Pontypool 22 4 0 18 31 8

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