Rugby Union: Great Welsh divide

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The Independent Online
AND STILL there are eight! After a summer of "will they, won't they" with Cardiff and Swansea, the Welsh Rugby Union Premier Division is set to kick off without their two jewels today.

When the division found itself robbed of its top two teams of last season eight days ago it had to move quickly. Last season's relegated side, Newport, were reinstated and the First Division runner-up, Aberavon, were elevated. The fact that the clubs were given less than a week to prepare for life in the top flight has made it difficult for them to gear up for the new campaign. The money they were expecting from the WRU as First Division sides was around pounds 70,000, while in the Premiership it will be closer to pounds 400,000.

So when the matches kick-off today, with Newport hosting Neath and Aberavon travelling to Bridgend, the two replacements will be at an immediate disadvantage having budgeted for the lower division.

It means there is likely to be an "us and them" scenario in the division: Pontypridd are the runaway favourites to take the title, Llanelli and Ebbw Vale will be their biggest rivals and First Division champions Caerphilly look the best of the rest.

The have-nots will be Newport and Aberavon, Bridgend and Neath, the Welsh All Blacks folding during the summer with debts of pounds 600,000 only to be saved by the WRU. If it is not quite a recipe for great competition, at least the rule changes have given some new impetus to the tournament.

As well as playing each other on a home and away basis, the top four sides will then play each other twice more in the race for the title, while the bottom four will battle it out to avoid relegation. Add in four matches against overseas opposition in the Challenge Trophy, and a potential five ties in the Swalec Cup, and the fixture list, at least, is more extensive.

But never mind about the width, what about the quality?Pontypridd have enhanced their pack by bringing in the new Wales lock, Ian Gough, from Newport, a Tongan prop in Nalu Tau and the explosive hooker, Marcus Thomas.

Geraint Lewis looks set to make a big impact in the back row and the club's back division looks capable of matching the best in Europe. All this will, of course, be backed up by Neil Jenkins' boot.

Llanelli look much more settled and the return to Stradey Park of Tony Copsey will add steel to the front five. The Swalec Cup holders will need to stay injury free to compete for silverware, and they might need a bit more pace at centre.

The rise of Ebbw Vale looks set to continue, although they will be severely tested by Toulouse in their opening European Cup tie next month. An influx of Pontypridd cast-offs - David Manley, Mark Spiller and Andrew Metcalfe - has boosted their strength in depth.

Even without Cardiff and Swansea, there will still be great rivalry and interest in the division, but the biggest worry for the new Wales coach, Graham Henry, will be whether or not the standard is good enough to prepare his players for the Test arena.