Rugby Union: Colourful prospect for Blacks and Whites

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THE strength and weakness of Welsh rugby will be on display in vivid monochrome this afternoon when the All Whites of Swansea tackle the All Blacks of Neath, first v second, in a match that could well settle the destiny of the Heineken League title, writes Steve Bale.

St Helen's will be packed, indeed has been sold out for weeks. A point behind with a game in hand, Neath will return to the top if they win. We can be certain it will be one of the most impassioned and thrilling occasions of the season.

In other words, it will be precisely what the English Divisional Championship is not - but that does not mean it will do anything much towards the re-establishment of Wales as an international force. Great club rugby does not equate with even passable Test rugby.

This, you could argue, is where England have got it right. To hell with the critics and doubters, the divisionals serve a useful purpose and as England are far and away more important than any club side no further justification is needed. The contrast in Wales could scarcely be greater.

The rivalry that will be witnessed at St Helen's is more or less tribal and such fundamental divisions have become almost insuperable when the tribes are 'united' as a national team. But, never mind its wider significance or insignificance, today's game stands in its own right and if much of the First Division programme has been dross, at least the colourful encounters between Scarlet (Llanelli), Black and White have shown there is still a beating Welsh heart.

Neath produced one of the performances of the season to trounce Swansea 40-18 three months ago: a result of supreme irrelevance today, according to Swansea's chief selector, the old Wales full-back Roger Blyth. He believes home advantage - ie, not having to step into the bearpit otherwise known as The Gnoll - will be critical.

'Neath won't have a psychological advantage as we didn't perform that day,' said Blyth, who could be excused for shuddering at the memory of the extinction of the Swansea forwards. He added, with as keen an eye for a cliche as he used to have for a gap: 'They'd be the first to agree it will be a whole different ball-game when we both start with a clean sheet.' It will also be a game of two halves.