Rugby Union: Betrayal of British league dream

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The Independent Online
THE LIGHTS went out on the great British league dream yesterday, leaving English rugby juggling with another crop of political hot potatoes and Welsh rugby laying flat on its back in a sporting graveyard. Ninety nine per cent of the union population on either side of the Severn Bridge - the players, the coaches, the long-neglected supporters - found themselves betrayed by a tiny handful of selfish investors and failed administrators. Well done, gentlemen. Crack open another bottle of red.

Glanmor Griffiths, chairman of both the Welsh Rugby Union and the British league working party, officially rejected cross-border proposals by the English Premiership clubs at a meeting in Cardiff. After five months of diplomatic to-ing and fro-ing, it emerged that the English had allocated their neighbours just five of the 30 places on offer: two clubs in a new first division and three in a second. Griffiths called the offer "demeaning", "dismissive" and "unacceptable". It was difficult to disagree.

But for all their principled resentment and righteous anger, Griffiths and his colleagues know they are now presiding over a domestic club game on the very brink of collapse. The refusal of Cardiff and Swansea to have anything to do with the WRU Premiership has brought the competition to its knees; it cannot attract an audience, let alone a big-money sponsor. Griffiths wants to open talks with Ireland and Scotland in an effort to launch a Celtic competition, but all the crowd and television interest is centred on the glamour pusses to the east, not the commoners to the north and west.

Neither of the rebel Welsh clubs are remotely interested in going home, as it were, and their place in the anarchic scheme of things remains an intractable problem for both the WRU and the Rugby Football Union. The Welsh, who have just slapped a writ on Swansea for repayment of pounds 1m the St Helens club has no means of finding, will decide next month whether to suspend or expel both teams from the union - a move that could render half the current national squad unavailable for Test rugby under International Board rules.

Meanwhile, Twickenham is contemplating the prospect of increasingly punitive IB fines over the programme of unsanctioned matches involving Cardiff, Swansea and all 14 top-flight Allied Dunbar Premiership outfits; according to the two refuseniks, the English have committed themselves to another full season of rebel matches. Had the English club owners dismounted their high horses and agreed to an all- inclusive conference-based tournament for next season, the problem would have been solved at a stroke.

It was too much for Terry Cobner, the director of rugby in Wales, who confessed yesterday to a feeling of "utter despair".

The national team coach, Graham Henry, ventured: "Common sense and logic will prevail eventually. Not that I would want to put a timescale on that."