Rugby Union: Challenging times for captain Scarlet: Welsh clubs kick off league season

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CRISIS, what crisis? The Llanelli captain, Rupert Moon, has heard all the rumours and lived through a wretched summer, yet still remains convinced that the mighty Scarlets will be as strong as ever.

One thing that can be said for Moon is that he talks well. He also acts as a catalyst at Stradey Park and while he refuses to give in to the pressure it is likely that others will follow suit.

So when the Heineken League season comes thundering back into action this afternoon with one of the world's great club derby encounters - the 1993 champions, Llanelli, versus the title holders, Swansea - everyone connected with the Scarlets will be singing from the same hymn sheet. For 80 minutes, all the talk of bankruptcy, internal strife, player defections and discontent will be banished. If Llanelli triumph, then everything in the garden will be be rosy, or perhaps scarlet again.

'Everyone has written us off and nobody is giving us a chance this season. We know that people like to see us fail because we have had so much success, but you don't become a bad side overnight,' Moon said. 'The financial problems at the club did bring a bit of pressure on to the players last season, but it has been made clear to all the players by the new chairman (Roy Bergiers) that Llanelli does not have major financial difficulties.

'We have been able to train hard over the last month and concentrate on what we do best, play attractive rugby. The emphasis this season will be on recapturing the style we showed when doing the Double two years ago.'

A victory over Swansea, who recently returned from a three- match tour of South America, would only paper over the cracks. The loss of Lyn Jones and Lloyd Davies to Treorchy, the sacking of the Welsh international, Emyr Lewis, and the subsequent walk- out of Mark Perego have left scars.

And then there is the financial side. A massive loan to help cover the construction of a new stand is a millstone. So much so that during the summer the chairman, John Maclean, and his right-hand man, Roger Powell, were booted out at the annual meeting for pushing for a plan to sell off a part of the club car park to raise funds.

In the end the scheme was given the backing of the membership. The coach, Allan Lewis, has come in for criticism from the departing Emyr Lewis and, as his assistant, Jeremy Cooper, was axed at the end of last season when the club lost their grip on the Swalec Cup, he must be under more pressure than ever. So it is vital for Moon and co that they get off to a flying start.

Elsewhere, it will be the newcomers Treorchy (Rhondda) who will be coming under closest scrutiny as they attempt to take their dream a stage further. Having marched from the Third to the First Division in two seasons, dropping only two games along the way, they have proved too strong for their recent rivals.

They knew the side that won the Second Division title last season would not be strong enough to compete, so when they make their First Division bow at Neath tonight there will be nine debutants in their ranks. A summer recruitment campaign has seen them restructure their side and they now have five internationals in their squad as well as a handful of Under-21 caps.

Neath, second last season, will want to bury them, but they know they cannot underestimate them. League rugby is all set to return with a bang, and probably a few upsets too.

Gary Armstrong, the Scotland scrum-half, will probably be out of rugby for the rest of this year after damaging his right knee ligaments in a training accident yesterday. Andy Nicol, Scotland's other leading scrum-half, is out of the autumn international against South Africa, also because of a knee injury.