Rugby Union: Principality parades its wealth

A rugby union metamorphosis in Wales today culminates in the kick- off of the new Welsh-Scottish Premier Division.
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The Independent Online
THE PATRIOTIC Welsh joke about the Severn Bridge toll booth - "Entry into England may be free, boyo, but you have to pay to come in here" - neatly captures the spirit of a vibrant rugby age in the land of the oval ball. There used to be other Welsh jokes, of course: their scrummaging, their line-out technique and, funniest of the lot, their half-baked domestic league structure. No one is sniggering now, though. Graham Henry's success in lighting the fires of hell under the posteriors of his administrators, as well as in the bellies of his Test players, has transformed the raddled old Principality into a confident new kingdom.

Remarkably, the metamorphosis has taken less than a year. Remember last September? Cardiff and Swansea were at war with their kith and kin, rogue referees were controlling increasingly violent rebel matches at St Helen's and the Arms Park, nine out of 10 prominent internationals were playing their club rugby in the English shires and others were still in hiding after shipping 96 points to South Africa in Pretoria. When James Dalton, the notoriously chopsy Springbok hooker, ridiculed one of the Welsh replacements at Loftus Versfeld - "Hey, China, you must be a seriously crap player if you're on the bench for this lot," he said, politely - Red Dragonhood hit rock bottom.

Yet this afternoon, something fresh and invigorating will stir in the heartlands of Bridgend and Caerphilly, at Stradey Park in Llanelli and at Rodney Parade in Newport: a new cross-border club competition designed to both maximise the present and signpost the future.

The Welsh-Scottish League, boasting the 10 leading Welsh clubs plus the two Scottish super-district outfits, has yet to capture a big-money backer - the committee men of the valleys remain mystified when it comes to securing any form of sponsorship worth more than a free barrel of "dark" for the players - but it does have wall-to-wall television, and once the big names return from World Cup duty in the late autumn, the pound notes will come rolling in.

Those big names are the key; Henry set out his stall to get the best Welsh players strutting their stuff in Wales and the persuasive New Zealander has triumphed against very substantial odds. Of Henry's World Cup squad, only Allan Bateman and Gareth Llewellyn are now contracted to English Premiership clubs. Craig Quinnell has re-crossed the Severn to join Cardiff, while Peter Rogers and Shane Howarth have done likewise to man the barricades of the Newport revolution. Even more impressively, one outstanding Springbok in Gary Teichmann and one very passable one in Franco Smith are also en- route to Rodney Parade. The grimy old place will hardly know itself.

No wonder Welsh eyes are smiling; even Terry Cobner, the national director of rugby, is gambolling around like a spring lamb. This time last year, the burden of high office and humiliations of high farce were taking their toll on the Lion of Pontypool. They are taking their toll no longer. "Incredibly positive, all this," he beamed at this week's official league launch at Cardiff's swanky International Arena. "We all knew what was wrong with the domestic structure as it stood: there was too little quality to give us the quantity of rugby we needed to make a season for ourselves. Now that we've matched the quality with the quantity, we have a viable base from which to work.

"In many ways, the Scots were in an even more difficult situation. Once they decided to go down the super-district route and pour all their resources into the Edinburgh Reivers and Glasgow Caledonians, they were always going to have serious fixture problems. By joining with us in this venture, they've given themselves a lifeline. The next task is to pull the Irish along with us and take this thing up another gear. Then, and only then in my view, will we bring enough to the table to convince the English that a fully-fledged British league is the right way ahead for us all."

Ah, the old British league chestnut. Is Cobner now admitting that Welsh poverty, rather than English arrogance, fatally undermined last season's headlong rush towards a four-cornered cross-border competition? "Look, the different national agendas - and, in some cases, the different personal agendas - baffled and confused me at the time, and when I look back on the negotiations from this distance, they baffle me still. I don't think it appropriate to point the finger at anyone in particular. What I do think is that a British league is a perfectly attainable goal in the medium term. A five-year time scale? Yes, I'd say that's quite realistic."

The English may beg to differ; increasingly bullish about the strength of their own Allied Dunbar Premiership and happily restored to the bosom of the cash-rich European Cup family, they see no conceivable reason why they should countenance anyone or anything situated north of Newcastle or west of Bristol. The Celts will continue to grumble into their beer about selfish Little Englanders and their rabid protectionism, but money does the talking these days and there is is still precious little money behind the British league ideal.

A second issue nags at the back of the mind. Now Cardiff, Swansea, Llanelli and Pontypridd have been granted super-club status, with all the Welsh Rugby Union support that entails, how can the down and outs hope to compete? Newport, not so much the "Black and Ambers" as the "Bok and Ambers" these days, will obviously punch their weight; indeed, they may soon strike a really serious blow for the future of Gwent rugby by succeeding Ponty as one of the WRU's official elite. But Dunvant? Ebbw Vale? Caerphilly? No one, least of all potential sponsors, wants to see two divisions in a single league.

But with eight Test victories on the bounce, including five this summer, no one in Wales has much time for negative vibes. "This is a moment we need to seize," said Llanelli's Stuart Gallacher, chairman of the Welsh Premier Clubs. "Let's be honest, we've short-changed the spectators for the last three years with all the political comings and goings. Now that we can finally offer them a fixture list as good as anything in the northern hemisphere, we can at last tap into our support and bring the people back into our grounds. Quality players are arriving here, not just from England but from the southern hemisphere, too. A number of different factors have come together to rekindle interest in the game in Wales. It's our responsibility to build on that base."