Rugby Union: Only pain for pride of Ponty

Cardiff and Swansea left bitter rivals when they walked out on Welsh rugby
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The Independent Online
WHENEVER EDDIE JONES contemplates his beloved Sardis Road, he feels the sharp pangs of frustration. "If only we knew where we were going," says Pontypridd's team manager, "we could build something very special here; a 15,000- capacity stadium with state of the art facilities and a team to match. We could be the pride of Wales." But Pontypridd do not have the faintest idea where they are going. When Cardiff and Swansea finally switched out the lights on Welsh club rugby last month, they plunged their fellow big- timers headlong into the darkness.

Ponty are the outstanding side the boardroom politicians left behind, sacrificed on the altar of tit-for-tat one-upmanship. Their fixture list has been decimated, their crowds are in slow but steady decline and their players are soft targets for the hungry carnivores on the far side of the Severn. If a British league does not make the leap from fantasy to fact in good time for the start of next season, they could join Neath and Llanelli as yesterday's men in the game of the future.

This time last year Neil Jenkins and company had already hosted Cardiff (the biggest draw in Wales), Bath (the biggest draw in Britain) and Brive (the reigning European champions) in front of full-house audiences. This season, the fare has been rather more mundane - Caerphilly, Llanelli, Bridgend, Aberavon and Ebbw Vale in the domestic premiership; Glasgow Caledonians, Colomiers and Treviso in the European Cup - and their form has been inconsistent. The dumbing down is taking effect.

Bath, who played thunderous Heineken Cup matches at Sardis Road in each of the last two seasons, sent a spy across the bridge for last Friday's match with the Italians of Treviso; the West Countrymen like the look of Geraint Lewis and Martyn Williams, the two Ponty flankers, and retain a soft spot for Jenkins, who so nearly joined them last summer. Other clubs have their greedy eyes trained on Kevin Morgan, Gareth Wyatt and Dafydd James, the holy trinity of the Sardis back line. If the British league negotiations bite the dust, no doubt the hyenas will move in.

Dennis John, the Ponty coach who guided the Welsh national team through the minefield of South Africa during the summer, admits his players look upon Cardiff and Swansea with envious eyes. By rejecting the Welsh Rugby Union's 10-year loyalty agreement and opting out of domestic competition, the rebel clubs secured home and away fixtures, albeit unsanctioned by an increasingly impotent governing body, with all 14 English top-flighters. By signing with the WRU, Ponty guaranteed themselves pounds 400,000 a year and a place in a hopelessly devalued European tournament.

"It's understandable that an element of jealousy should creep in," volunteers John, whose dearest wish is to see Ponty play the best in Britain on a weekly basis. "But we are a committee-run club rather than a naked commercial venture and we opted to go with the union. Those who made the decision did so with the best of intentions, but it's fair to say that some of the players, especially, understand where Cardiff and Swansea are coming from.

"Personally speaking, I wish both clubs had waited; had we stuck together for a year, we'd have had our British league without any shadow of a doubt. Their departure has unquestionably left a hole. Cardiff have always played a central role in the Pontypridd season, what with all the local traditions and the derby rivalry. Now they're not there, it seems very peculiar. Something is missing."

While John takes a diplomatic stance on the vexed issue of the rebel clubs, his colleagues are not all of the same mind. Jones, for instance, has said some harsh things about both sets of refuseniks and believes they should be made to qualify for any new cross-border competition through England's Allied Dunbar Premiership.

"I personally asked both clubs to stay on board and commit themselves to the development of a strong domestic game in Wales, which is in danger of slipping into semi-oblivion," says Jones, who played for Cardiff as a youngster and maintains good relations with the Arms Park management. "But they took what they considered to be a business decision and they'll have to live with it. I was bitterly disappointed when they opted for this course of action because, to my mind, they have made life extremely difficult for those trying to agree a British league format.

"My concern is for the well-being of Welsh rugby in general and Ponty in particular and, as things stand, we're finding it very hard to move forward. Of course we're feeling the pinch; of course we're concerned that our best players might look for something more than they're being offered right now. But if a British league fails to get the green light, we'll explore every possibility in an effort to hold things together."

As a symbol of a game seemingly obsessed with self-flagellation, Ponty are just about perfect. Every Allied Dunbar Premiership team wants them on their fixture list, but they will not play a single meaningful match against English opposition this season. Cardiff and Swansea see them as their only worthwhile domestic opponents yet apart from the remote possibility of a Welsh Cup meeting - it is not yet clear whether the rebels will be allowed to compete for that particular silver pot - they will avoid each other like the plague.

"Baffling, isn't it?" says Jones. "We're trying to sell the game of rugby to a waiting public and all we're doing is denying them what they want to see."

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