Rugby Union: Brilliant idea, shame about the men in suits

'Rugby is now about muscular egos in the committee rooms'
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The Independent Online
THE WELSH Rugby Union's decision to put the blocks on the British League was a bigger kick in the teeth for Welsh rugby than the 96-13 defeat by South Africa in June. We can get over a bad beating but I doubt if we can recover from leadership like this.

I was brought up to believe that the game was more important than anything or anybody. Apparently this is no longer so. It takes second place to the need for administrators to display how powerful they are. Rugby used to be about skill, strength and speed on the pitch - now it's about muscular egos in the committee rooms.

When, on Friday, the English and Scottish unions reluctantly announced that the British League was being shelved for a year it brought a sorry end to an exciting prospect and left me bitterly disappointed that it should have been my countrymen who first put the boot into the idea. I realise that some of the 26 committee men would have been all in favour of supporting this brave attempt to rescue the season but they were defeated by a majority who put political priorities before the interests of the clubs, the players and the supporters.

I'm probably not clever enough to imagine what calamities would have been caused if the English, Welsh and Scottish clubs had created an exciting domestic competition which, in addition to the European Cup, would have given us something to look forward to. Perhaps the thought of fans having their money's worth was too much to bear.

We're told that legal problems were at the heart of the decision, but complicated disputes of the sort they're talking about could take years to sort out, and by then we won't have a game worth getting legal about. Why should a wrangle between clubs and the International Rugby Board be allowed to get in the way of a highly competitive season that could have brought such a boost to the Northern Hemisphere countries in the run-up to the World Cup next year. I hope the Southern Hemisphere teams realise the favour that our unions are doing them.

Perhaps it would have been easier to grasp their reasoning if Vernon Pugh, the IRB chairman, and Glanmor Griffiths, the WRU chairman, had been around to explain it all. But, before the vital meeting on Thursday evening, they took off for Buenos Aires for the Americas World Cup qualifying group. A slight delay in their arrival in Argentina would surely have been forgiven in the light of what was being decided back home and the clubs are right to condemn what has gone on.

It is even harder to understand why the Welsh were prime movers in wrecking the British League when we needed it more than anyone else. As much as the new league and the European Cup would benefit them, England already have the Allied Dunbar league; and although Scotland and Ireland desperately require more competitive rugby, Wales are in the direst need, faced as they are with near-bankrupt clubs and a clapped-out domestic scene.

This is the country, remember, who have agreed to pay the Kiwi coach Graham Henry an unprecedented pounds 250,000 annual wage to haul Welsh rugby out of a pit that the WRU have been steadfastly digging for the last 20 years or so. He'll be arriving soon to start his job and to find that his hopes for a newly structured season have been demolished - just like the old Arms Park, only not as subtly.

It is also difficult to understand some of the other Welsh complaints about the proposed league. With the top four Welsh clubs due to go in the top division, the next four would be included in the Second Division. Some saw this as an insult, which just proves how much they've lost touch with reality. A spokesman for Bridgend complained about having to play teams like Rotherham and West Hartlepool.

I wouldn't bet Bridgend to beat West Hartlepool with his money, let alone mine. In any case I'm sure Bridgend fans would love to see a change of opposition. What about Leeds with Wendell Sailor in their team, or London Welsh, or Coventry, or Moseley - wouldn't they be welcome at Llanelli, Neath or Caerphilly, or do the Welsh clubs think it beneath them to play such teams?

It is the old Welsh parochialism again. The new league would have brought a welcome breath of fresh air into Welsh rugby, along with a few home truths. Moreover, it would have stimulated the revival of the national team.

Now we have to wait to see what happens to Cardiff and Swansea. Can they break free and at least play friendlies against top opposition or will they be bludgeoned into signing the WRU's 10-year loyalty agreement, which by common consent has ruined any chance of harmony at the top level of Welsh rugby?

I'm sure Cardiff won't give in, whatever the cost. And there will be few fans who disagree with their stand. I've not met anyone recently who hasn't been desperate to see a proper rugby season set up. They, and the game at large, have been betrayed.

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