Rugby Union: Neath have to negotiate gulf

Chris Hewett on today's latest round of Heineken Cup encounters
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The Independent Online
The trip from Neath to The Stoop Memorial Ground takes less than four hours, assuming the M4 behaves itself and the team coach steers clear of punctures. The problem for the Welsh champions is that in financial terms, they would need to hire a space shuttle to reach the planet inhabited by Harlequins.

When the two sides meet in Pool C of the Heineken European Cup today, the playing field will be about as level as the upper slopes of Snowdon.

That is no reflection on the groundstaff at The Stoop, but a comment on the harsh economic realities of a sport in its professional infancy. While the bond traders, stockbrokers and full-time rugby players of Quins will be fed, watered and properly rested when they renew their challenge for Continental glory, spare a thought for PC Chris Higgs, the Neath wing, who finished his night shift at six this morning and is due back on duty at six tonight.

Never was the gulf between well-heeled clubs like Harlequins, sitting pretty astride a multi-million pound sponsorship package, and those like Neath more graphically illustrated than during the summer, when the Londoners went recruiting with their cheque book at the ready.

Gareth Llewellyn and his brother Glyn, both Welsh international locks and the backbone of Neath's title-winning side last season, were high on the shopping list.

As Daryll Jones, now in his second year as coach at The Gnoll, put it: "We weren't in the race. We would have loved to have kept both of them, but there was no point even trying to pretend that they would benefit from staying.

"As an exercise in pure economics, it was completely straightforward. They were leaving to better themselves financially, and, in all probability, as rugby players too because when you look at the Quins side, it is very impressive indeed. There's no animosity at all; the Llewellyns departed with our best wishes and it's our job now to move things along without them."

Easier said than done. The Welshmen have been so badly hit by injuries this season that they conceded 59 points to Bridgend and almost as many to Dunvant during a calamitous build-up to the European tournament. When they travelled to Brive, the outstanding French side, last weekend they fielded a 19-year-old at stand-off and an 18-year-old in the centre. "They grew up pretty quickly, but not quite quickly enough," said Jones, reflecting on a 34-19 defeat.

But Neath closed ranks to struggle through against Caledonia in midweek and with Steve Williams, their international flanker, making his first Euro appearance this afternoon alongside fellow Test forwards John Davies and Barry Williams, the Llewellyn brothers may not have it all their own way.

Especially as Neath also intend to field the 6ft 8in Andrew Kembury in their second row. Kembury's injury problems have been so frequent that he might have considered taking out a mortgage on a treatment table, but he adds so much steel and power to the pack that Jones had no hesitation in naming him once his fitness was confirmed.

Bridgend are poised to recapture the Wales A stand-off, Matthew Lewis from Wasps. Lewis, who left last season, could sign a contract before today's European Conference match against Dinamo Bucharest, after the clubs agreed a transfer fee.

Bath have been forced into a midfield reshuffle for their visit to Pontypridd because of injuries to Phil de Glanville, Henry Paul and, most damagingly, the in-form Jeremy Guscott. Adedayo Adebayo moves inside from the left wing to partner the inexperienced Matt Perry.

Cardiff also have personnel problems for their rematch with the champions Toulouse in France. Jonathan Davies, who popped a rib cartilage during Wednesday night's encounter with Munster, has not recovered so Lee Jarvis steps up.

One player who is expected to play tomorrow is Martin Offiah, the Great Britain rugby league wing who signed for Second Division Bedford during the summer but has been sidelined by a toe injury. He has been named for a debut against Rotherham at Goldington Road.

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