RUGBY UNION: League programme in Wales doubly important

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To say it never rains but it pours is a statement of the meteorologically obvious in south Wales this week, but it is also how the Welsh selectors are feeling after further calamitous additions to their rolling roll-call of injured.

No sooner does one come off the list than another is added and, with a team to play France to be named next Friday, this afternoon's Heineken League First Division fixtures have assumed far more importance than the mere winning of trophies.

Yet even without the Wales crisis - and for once it is no exaggeration to call it so - this would have been a critical day. Having won at Cardiff, Pontypridd are two points behind the leaders with a game in hand but such is the disparity in the try-countthat they need Cardiff to drop at least one more match.

Today's at The Gnoll could be such an opportunity, though Neath can scarcely be described as running hot even if they are up in third place. The title having long since become a remote objective, the Welsh All Blacks' motivation is more likely to be revenge - though vengeance is sometimes a better word at The Gnoll - for the record 37-9 league defeat at the Arms Park in September.

But this is peripheral to the main event, Wales's visit to Paris on 21 January. Such is Welsh ill luck that surely only a Welshman could get himself ruled out by wrecking his hand in a fight in a wine-bar. Not quite: Hemi Taylor is really a New Zealanderwho has settled in Wales, but that punching hand is in such a mess that he will not face France and may not play again this season.

As the Welsh back row is already without Emyr Lewis with torn ankle ligaments, it will have to be two-thirds reconstructed from that which did so well against South Africa. Always assuming Richie Collins remains intact, that is.

Hence the significance of today's games, with the outside possibility that Llanelli's meeting with Treorchy will help propel Quinnell into the Wales team. Craig, that is, the 19-year-old brother of Scott, who was last season's Five Nations sensation and this season's rugby league recruit.

At 6ft 7in and 19st, the teenager has three inches and two stone on his "big" brother and if Wales were to combine him with the 6ft 8in Andrew Kembrey they would then - even with Collins's miniscule 6ft 1in suddenly have a back row with the height and weight to challenge France's and even England's gargantuae.

This is the same Andrew Kembrey whom the Springboks blamed for starting the rough stuff at The Gnoll in November (a charge both the player and Neath vigorously deny) but whom Kitch Christie, South Africa's coach, ended the tour by describing as probably the best forward they had encountered here.

Christie suggested Kembrey should have been capped against the Springboks and Neath appear to have persuaded the player his persistent leg injury has healed sufficiently for him to face Cardiff today. The leaders, meanwhile, have not ruled out the injured Wales lock Derwyn Jones - who, at 6ft l0in, looks down on Kembery and Quinnell - though his return after a back injury is thought more likely to be against Swansea next Saturday.

A New Year's Eve round of league matches as well as one over Christmas shows that for the Welsh Rugby Union there is no such thing as a season of goodwill. English clubs are luckier, the resumption of the Courage Championship not coming until next weekend, though the England squad are filling the gap with training on Lanzarote.

In the meantime, Bristol have done a useful piece of business with next season in mind. Gareth Archer, 20, the England Under-21 lock who plays for Newcastle Gosforth, is joining the Royal Corps of Signals in Wiltshire, has signed for his new club and will be eligible to play for them in September.