Rugby Union: Anglo-Welsh links move closer

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The Independent Online
THE birth pangs are likely to be severe and prolonged, but after weekend discussions in Cardiff a process has begun which may result in a coalescence between English and Welsh rugby at representative and top club level.

Representatives of the two unions are to meet at Gloucester, probably within the next month and ostensibly to talk about more mundane issues such as player eligibility.

There is concern after Bath's registration of the Bridgend scrum-half Robert Howley so that he will have completed his 120-day qualification for the beginning of next season.

But there is little doubt that, provided the will is there, the debate will turn to how to get Welsh teams into an expanded provincial championship with the four English divisions and how to combine the upper club echelons into some form of premier league - a concept which has the powerful backing of the Swansea chairman, Mike James.

Such moves would coincide exactly with the wishes of Alan Davies, the Wales coach, though when he aired his views before Christmas the Welsh Rugby Union swiftly made clear that this was not its policy. Even so, Davies has no doubt about the benefit - in fact the necessity - of getting together.

'This might seem heresy but I think Wales has to select another country to develop with,' he said. 'That could be France but it would be more appropriate that it is England, just as Australia set its stall out many years ago to develop its rugby with New Zealand.'

Coming in the wake of Wales's 10-9 win over England, this may seem heavily ironic but the truth of the matter is that the Rugby Football Union has a representative pyramid in place which has served the national team superbly in the five years since Geoff Cooke became team manager and is the envy of others.

Wales, which has found the development of a representative structure almost impossible because of the strength of the clubs and the geographical compactness of its rugby-playing area, could do with a piece of that action.

'There's no love lost between the Australian and the New Zealander, but it has enhanced the performance of both countries,' Davies added. 'That's got to happen between Wales and England. Our teams should play in the Divisional Championship, and certainly I would like to see an Anglo-Welsh premier league.'

John Powell, chairman of the WRU's competition committee, does not wish to commit himself, saying enigmatically: 'It would be extremely foolish not to talk.' However, his RFU counterpart, John Jeavons-Fellows, has been more forthcoming. In his opinion, the problems of amalgamation are simply there to be solved.

'It would be a formidable competition,' Jeavons-Fellows said. 'The loss of meaningful Anglo-Welsh rugby has been possibly the worst effect of leagues and if you are introverted you always lose.

'Personally I would favour a move along these lines. It's a natural move forward, and if you don't move forward you will surely go backward because you never stand still.'