Rugby Union: Cardiff's cash faces Ponty's spirit in new-style league

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The Independent Online
Having been brothers in arms during the Lions' epic Test series triumph in South Africa this summer, Scott Gibbs and Neil Jenkins will be on a collision course this season with the new Welsh Premiership title at stake.

Gibbs, who won the man of the series award in South Africa, says his Swansea side are ready to storm to the title in the slimmed-down, eight- team tournament.

But Jenkins, on target with the vital points that guaranteed the Lions the 2-1 series win, warns that Pontypridd will get even better following their first championship triumph last season.

Tonight's big kick-off against Cardiff - the multi-million pound television deal with S4C will see a shift to Saturday night matches - should give everyone an idea of how capable Ponty will be at defending their crown.

Cardiff are set to arrive with their new signings, Gregori Kacala and Tony Rees, both fresh from the heart of the pack that steered Brive to the Heineken Cup crown last season, but without the Lions scrum-half Rob Howley.

Cardiff, the only team in the Premiership still in dispute with the Welsh Rugby Union over the signing of a 10-year loyalty contract, are the team everyone fears. With the wily Australian coach, Alex Evans, back at the helm they could sweep the board, but Cardiff's financial and numerical advantages were comfortably outweighed by Ponty's corporate spirit and Swansea's spirit of adventure and cohesion last season.

It all adds up to the most exciting title contest since the leagues started in Wales back in 1990. Llanelli, back from the brink of bankruptcy, should not be ruled out despite the departure of Ieuan Evans yesterday and you dismiss Ebbw Vale and Newport at your peril.

Gibbs is fiercely committed to the All Whites' cause and wants to add to his honours list. "We have always had the ability to score plenty of tries, but we have also been guilty of giving too many away. Tightening up our defence is the main goal and we know that we have to get it right because it could take a club with an unbeaten record to lift the title," he said.

Swansea ended up empty-handed last season, beaten in the cup final and runners-up in the league, but they have a formidable look about them. Mike Ruddock has moved on to coach Leinster, but the Kiwi-born John Plumtree inherits a strong squad.

"Everyone knows Mike Ruddock did a brilliant job for the club but John, our new director of rugby, has a different style," Gibbs said. "He is determined to instil in the squad a more ruthless and hard-edged side to our game," Gibbs added.

"With Europe starting in early September, the Heineken Cup has to be our early target, but the domestic league is a club's lifeblood and we will be going flat out for that honour."

Jenkins, who has remained at Sardis Road despite the close attention of Saracens, said: "I think we are going to be even stronger this season than we have over the last two years when we won the Swalec Cup and then the league title.

"From being the bridesmaids of three seasons ago, when we were runners- up in the league and cup, we have developed into a winning combination over the past two seasons.

"That has been built on hard work, commitment, honesty and good teamwork."

More of the same, allied to that trusty right boot of Jenkins, should be good enough to see Ponty remain on top, but do not rule out Cardiff and Swansea from a good run in Europe.

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