Rugby Union: Henry presses Cardiff's case for European entry

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The Independent Online
GRAHAM HENRY, labelled "The Messiah" from the very moment he set foot in Wales to coach the national team, yesterday lived up to his nickname by challenging the pin-striped pharisees of the Welsh Rugby Union to defy their own Premiership clubs and include Cardiff in next season's European Cup. In an extraordinary declaration of support for Rob Howley and his big-city rebels, Henry accused the increasingly vociferous anti-Cardiff brigade of "making politics the No 1 sport in the country".

The WRU general committee has twice agreed to give Cardiff, who opted out of last season's Welsh Premiership, a place in the reconstituted European competition, alongside Llanelli, Pontypridd, Neath and Swansea, a second rebel club who earned their place in next season's elite tournament by winning the Swalec Cup. However, Ebbw Vale, who finished fourth in the Premiership, insist they should be included at Cardiff's expense and have won the unanimous backing of their Premiership partners.

Henry is fearful that the WRU will crack under the threat of legal action - the pressure on committee members has been cranked up by the Premiership clubs, who have warned of a possible boycott against Cardiff - while he is in Argentina for a two-Test summer tour. "This is the most important decision the union has made for a long, long time," he said. "I'm confident that the right decision will be made - it's been made twice already - but I want to make it clear that if Cardiff are not in Europe, the position of the national team will be considerably weakened.

"Quite frankly, I don't give a horse's backside about Cardiff or Swansea as such: you can call them Elephant One and Elephant Two if you like. What interests me is that Elephant One and Elephant Two have the strongest teams, and if we don't get our strongest teams in the strongest European competition, we'll be history, a second-class rugby nation. How much longer do we intend punishing these people for their actions last season? Compared with politics, rugby is a long way down the sporting ladder in this country. It's about time we put it at the top."

The next few days will be seen as the acid test for Henry and his blueprint for Welsh rugby. The imaginative New Zealander is attempting to concentrate his adoptive country's talent into four "super clubs" - Cardiff, Swansea, Llanelli and Pontypridd - and 30 of this summer's 37 tourists are already in place. "We have to get ourselves into the 21st century," he said, leaving the WRU in no doubt that in the event of their failure to deliver, he might seek the 21st century elsewhere.

Meanwhile, the organisers of this autumn's World Cup have named their panel of 16 referees - a panel that did not include Steve Lander, one of England's three professional officials. The other full-timers, Ed Morrison and Chris White, were selected, along with Brian Campsall, the teacher from Halifax who was not awarded a Rugby Football Union contract last season.