Rugby Union: Rebel clubs secede from WRU

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By Ian Laybourn

CARDIFF AND Swansea yesterday confirmed their commitment to play friendly fixtures with England's top clubs this season and told the Welsh Rugby Union they will not be participating in the Premier Division, which kicks off in just eight days' time, after maintaining their refusal to sign a 10-year loyalty contract.

It is now likely that Newport, relegated from the Premier Division last season, and Aberavon, who finished second in the First Division, will be elevated to the top flight alongside Maesteg and UWIC.

English First Division Rugby have already published fixture lists incorporating friendly games between the two rebel Welsh clubs and Allied Dunbar One teams, despite opposition from the Rugby Football Union.

The decision was formally announced by Gareth Davies, Cardiff's chief executive, and Swansea's Roger Blyth, a club director. In a joint statement, they declared: "Both clubs believe that the quality of competitive rugby now available through these fixtures is what is needed to give Welsh rugby the boost it needs.

"The decision does not mean that Cardiff and Swansea are turning their backs on Welsh rugby, even though they are not able to play in the WRU Premier Division. Both clubs have organised friendly fixtures with each of the 14 teams of the Allied Dunbar Premiership One on a home and away basis throughout the season.

"We believe these fixtures will provide an exciting spectacle for our supporters and prepare our players for a British League when it is formed. Our international players will also experience higher quality rugby on a regular basis which will help them in preparation for the World Cup.

"With domestic competition denied us by the WRU, we had to look elsewhere and we are pleased that the English clubs have agreed with us to develop this cross-border opportunity. All we want is to get on with running our clubs and providing our fans and players with a top-quality fixtures list."

Davies confirmed that Cardiff and Swansea would not be participating in this season's European Cup and, considering the decision to boycott the competition by the English clubs, he suggested that the tournament may not even get under way.

"The WRU told us that unless we signed up to the 10-year loyalty agreement, we wouldn't be in the Premier Division or the European Cup," Davies said. "It's a blow but we've made our decision. The competition is fairly meaningless anyway without the English clubs and I have my doubts as to whether it will take place."

However, the decision by Cardiff and Swansea could have grave consequences. The WRU has threatened to claim primacy of contract on signed-up international squad members and move Test stars such as the Cardiff scrum-half, Robert Howley, and Scott Gibbs, the Swansea centre, elsewhere.

The RFU, however, have consistently refused to give their blessing to friendly fixtures and Doug Ash, the chief executive of EFDR, is seeking approval from Twickenham.

"We are committed to playing these fixtures," Ash said. "We have got to get the Union to firstly agree to the set of Allied Dunbar fixtures which have already been published. Then we can focus on issues which they may or may not have with regard to the friendlies.

"We would have preferred to play Cardiff and Swansea in a British League, which is a wonderful idea, but the powers that be have ruled that impossible for this season. But at least by playing them in friendly fixtures it will be a prelude to what will, hopefully, happen next year."