Rugby Union: New setback for Anglo-Welsh plans

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The Independent Online
GRAHAM HENRY may be the most extravagantly rewarded rugby coach in the world, but pounds 250,000 a year is scant consolation when you have to conjure a half-decent Test team out of a fathomless pit of domestic chaos. No sooner had the quick-witted New Zealander announ-ced his side to play Scotland at Murrayfield in this weekend's opening round of Five Nations matches - Matthew Robinson of Swansea has suddenly appeared from the back end of nowhere to claim a debut place on the wing - than the whole future of the game in the principality was thrown into confusion by the breakdown of plans for a new Anglo-Welsh competition.

The Welsh Rugby Union held a 90-minute emergency meeting in Cardiff last night to thrash out a final response to proposals tabled by the English Premiership clubs and although none of the delegates would discuss the findings, there were clear indications that they wanted no part of the deal.

The English offered their nearest neighbours only two places in a new First Division and three in a second tier. It was an ill-conceived and mean-minded attempt to break the political impasse and there was never the remotest chance of the WRU support.

Henry, who wants to see four elite Welsh clubs and a full British league, must now wait to see whether the WRU can strike some sort of deal with their fellow Celts in Scotland and Ireland, or whether the English come back with a more generous offer. He will also be wondering where the latest developments leave Cardiff and Swansea, the two rebel clubs who have been playing unsanctioned friendlies against Allied Dunbar Premiership opposition all season. Their exposed position is becoming an embarrassment to the English.

Besides trying to find a route through the diplomatic minefield, Henry had pressing problems on the selection front as he attempted to minimise the damage caused by Craig Quinnell's withdrawal from Murrayfield duty. The Richmond lock damaged a knee during last Tuesday's Allied Dunbar Premiership match with Leicester and declared himself out of the running over the weekend. Ian Gough, the young Pontypridd forward notoriously punched senseless by Ebbw Vale's Mark Jones earlier in the season, will win his second cap by partnering Chris Wyatt in what now appears a worryingly lightweight engine- room.

There are two further changes to the tight five that struggled against Argentina before Christmas: Darren Morris of Swansea and David Young of Cardiff replace Andrew Lewis and Chris Anthony at prop. It was the 25-year-old Robinson who captured the imagination of the Welsh public, however. "Yes, Mark has come from nowhere, but he's been scoring tries and has done enough to win a vote of confidence," said the coach, who decided to recall Allan Bateman to his natural position at centre rather than give him an outing on the wing.

Across the Severn in England, the five London clubs still left in the Tetley's Bitter Cup generally managed to avoid each other in the draw for the quarter-finals. Wasps and London Irish will lock horns at Loftus Road over the weekend of 28 February, but the other three were granted respite from the peculiar pressures of a knock-out derby.

Richmond's home advantage over Leicester may not prove too decisive, given the Tigers' recent comprehensive victory at the Madjeski Stadium.

Harlequins, however, will fancy their chances of a last four place; admittedly, they must travel to Gloucester, but Kings-holm does not frighten anyone these days. Saracens, the holders, have a far more awkward task at Newcastle.

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