Rugby Union: Henry backs cross-border competition

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The Independent Online
GRAHAM HENRY may well be wary of his reputation as the long-awaited Messiah of Welsh rugby, but there were definite echoes of the Sermon on the Mount yesterday as he threw his considerable influence behind the early establishment of a new cross-border competition. In the national coach's considered opinion, the home unions cannot hope to inherit the earth unless a British league - or, at the very least, a major Anglo-Welsh competition - emerges from the political swampland stretching all the way from Twickenham to Cardiff.

"Let's get this thing right while we have the opportunity," said the sharply analytical New Zealander. "A British league should be brought in so that the countries of the northern hemisphere can compete more effectively against the southern hemisphere nations and beat them consistently rather than occasionally. I'm worried that people are getting this all wrong, that the bigger picture isn't being considered by the decision makers. Everyone seems to be thinking of his own back yard, rather than the game as a whole."

If Henry's outburst - and given the wall of silence erected by the direct participants in the negotiations, it certainly qualified as such - was aimed at anyone in particular, it was his own employers at the Welsh Rugby Union.

While the coach wants to see four high-quality "super clubs" flying the competitive flag for Wales, the chairman of the WRU, Glanmor Griffiths, has reduced the English negotiators to tears of laughter by pushing for a 10-team presence in any new competition. If Griffiths gets real, an agreement is still possible. If he sticks to his guns, there will be stalemate.

Meanwhile, Henry pulled four reinforcements into his squad for the opening Five Nations match with Scotland on Saturday week: Kevin Morgan, the Pontypridd full-back, and Mark Robinson, the Swansea wing, joined the backs contingent while two Ponty forwards, Ian Gough and Geraint Lewis, were added to the heavy brigade. Gough provides cover for Craig Quinnell, who injured his right knee during Richmond's match with Leicester on Tuesday night, while Robinson's presence reflects the coach's concern over Gareth Thomas, who has yet to recover from surgery on his shoulder. Henry conceded that Allan Bateman, his world-class centre, might end up on the wing at Murrayfield. If that sounded no more logical than asking Yehudi Menuhin to play the triangle rather than the fiddle, there was method in the madness; Bateman, blessed with real pace and a consummate rugby brain, would undoubtedly solve a problem out wide and allow Henry to retain the Scott Gibbs-Mark Taylor midfield axis that accomplished so much in the pre-Christmas outings against South Africa and Argentina.

Across the Irish Sea in Dublin, Warren Gatland named a 23-man squad for next week's eagerly awaited championship set-to with France at Lansdowne Road.

Three of the in-form London Irish squad are included - Conor O'Shea, Justin Bishop and Malcolm O'Kelly - along with seven other Premiership players and one, Jeremy Davidson, from France. Davidson, a pillar of the successful Lions pack in South Africa two years ago but seriously inconvenienced by recent injury, is now performing at full tilt for Castres.

Only four of those expected to represent Ulster in this Saturday's European Cup final against Colomiers have made the cut and of those, only Jonathan Bell and Andy Ward are firm favourites to face the French. David Humphreys, such an inspiration at outside-half this season, will get the nod if his form holds up this weekend but Justin Fitzpatrick, the Dungannon prop, is unlikely to feature in the final 15.

By way of an unpalatable footnote to the political upheavals of the last few days, the Rugby Football Union Reform Group decided to stir from its coffin yesterday. Its members, fierce supporters of the former RFU chairman Cliff Brittle during his two-year war with England's professional clubs, are threatening the current Twickenham management board with a vote of no confidence in March. Well, why change the habit of a lifetime?

WALES' FIVE NATIONS CHAMPIONSHIP TRAINING GROUP Backs: S Howarth (Sale), K Morgan (Pontypridd), D James (Pontypridd), M Robinson (Swansea), G Thomas (Cardiff), A Bateman (Richmond), M Taylor (Swansea), S Gibbs (Swansea), N Jenkins (Pontypridd), R Howley (Cardiff, capt), D Llewellyn (Ebbw Vale). Forwards: A Lewis (Cardiff), D Morris (Swansea), D Young (Cardiff), C Anthony (Swansea), J Humphreys (Cardiff), B Williams (Richmond), C Quinnell (Richmond), C Wyatt (Llanelli), M Voyle (Llanelli), I Gough (Pontypridd), C Charvis (Swansea), G Lewis (Pontypridd), M Williams (Pontypridd), S Quinnell (Llanelli).