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Rugby Union: Rebels duck enemy fire

'The IB say the game is flourishing. It may be in Outer Mongolia, but it's not growing in Wales or Scotland'; Tim Glover talks to the Cardiff chief riding a storm in Welsh rugby
WHEN Gareth Davies was head of sport in Wales for BBC TV he was able to broadcast live domestic rugby matches as well as the Five Nations' Championship. Then Peter Thomas, who took control of Cardiff RFC, made him his chief executive, since when Davies has been in more trouble spots than the UN Peacekeeping Force.

With HTV getting the contract for Welsh rugby, BBC Wales are now restricted to televising matches involving Cardiff and Swansea, the rebels who play "friendlies" against English clubs in the Allied Dunbar Premiership. The defection represents the biggest split in rugby since the formation of rugby league. That radical development was about professionalism, as is the present, bitter dispute.

The Welsh Rugby Union are apoplectic over the behaviour of Cardiff and Swansea, two of their strongest clubs. Imagine Leicester and Bath leaving the Rugby Football Union and aligning themselves with Wales. Nor is there any sign of a truce.

A month ago Cardiff were asked to explain themselves before the full committee of the WRU. "We put together a presentation and we thought it was an opportunity for conciliation," Davies said. "I admitted that we had been wrong in certain areas, as had the WRU. We were both victims of the new game and had learnt painful lessons. It was time to draw a line in the sand, forget the past and work together. All I saw were blank faces. Instead of entering into the debate they said we had been found guilty of playing against English opposition, that we'd allowed TV cameras into our ground and that we'd appointed our own referees. Of course we bloody had. I took a laptop computer to the meeting and they said they hadn't given me permission to use it. They asked us how much TV money we were getting. Excuse me, mind your own business. They were elected to address rugby issues, nothing else."

The WRU, who clearly regard it as their business, fined Cardiff and Swansea pounds 150,000 each. The clubs have no intention of paying and the deadline is 28 February. "I don't know what's going to happen," Davies said. "We could be expelled from the union, with a bit of luck."

The trouble started when the game went professional in 1995. The clubs were encouraged by the WRU to become limited companies, but the union wanted what was described as a golden share with 51 per cent voting rights. "We didn't fancy the idea of the WRU controlling Cardiff," Davies said. "They can't control themselves. Because we declined we were threatened with expulsion from domestic rugby and the European Cup." That prompted the first of several appearances in the High Court in London. "Initially the WRU wanted a share of Cardiff forever, then it was 20 years, then 10."

This is the infamous loyalty agreement which Cardiff and Swansea refused to sign. "One by one the clubs signed although they went down squealing," Davies said. Cardiff's response was to raise pounds 3m from more than 1,000 members who became shareholders.

"We never said we wouldn't play," Davies maintained, "Only that we wouldn't sign the 10-year deal. For that we've been kicked out. We don't think we're above everybody else. I'm a Llanelli lad and I've great admiration for clubs like Llanelli, Newport and Neath but you can't sit on history. The unions say the clubs want to run the international game but that's bunkum. We're not swashbuckling entrepreneurs. We wanted to be part of the WRU and we recognised them as the governing body, but they want to do everything. When it comes to TV and commercial deals we can do it ourselves. When the game went professional it was left to the clubs to pay the players. The unions didn't take control then but they want total control now."

Three weeks before the season started Cardiff were isolated. A WRU official had a pounds 100 bet that a Cardiff director at the club would soon be back in the fold. "We had nowhere to go," Davies said, "But we would have folded before signing that agreement. We knew we couldn't play in the Wales League so we either had to find another fixture list or go out of business. We found allies in England not because they liked us but because they were fighting their own battle."

The signs are that the people of Wales are supporting the rebels without a clause rather than the establishment. Last weekend Cardiff's match with Swansea drew 14,000 people (10 tickets, incidentally, were sold to the WRU) which was more than the total who watched the matches in the WRU's new Challenge Trophy. Cardiff's average home gate is 10,000 compared to 4,000 last season; in their last two home games they've had more customers than Llanelli have seen all season. The BBC's audiences for the rebel matches are bigger than HTV's for the Premier League and without Cardiff and Swansea the Wales team would be anaemic.

According to Davies the response from the WRU has been "vindictive". Cardiff and Swansea have been allowed to play in the Swalec Cup (Davies says the sponsors would have pulled out otherwise) but Cardiff are being forced to play at Llandovery in midweek despite getting a home draw, and yesterday Cardiff's ground should have been the venue for the Welsh Schools match against Australia, but the Union told them to move it to Bridgend. Similarly, Swalec want the Cup final to be played at Cardiff, but that too is likely to be switched.

Davies, who played for Welsh Schools before representing Cardiff and Wales at stand-off, also claims the WRU owe the club pounds 500,000 from TV revenues and the European Cup last season.

"What are we doing wrong?" Davies asked. "The players are playing at a higher level, we have built confidence for the Five Nations and we are getting bigger crowds. Why should we be run by people with no rugby pedigree? This should be about trying to build a business not travelling around the world on freebies. The International Board says the game is flourishing. It may be growing in Portugal and Outer Mongolia but it's not growing in Wales or Scotland."

Indeed, the SRU are having an almighty job selling tickets for the game against Wales at Murrayfield on 6 February.

Davies has just been co- opted on to a committee with Tom Walkinshaw, the new chairman of English First Division Rugby, Nigel Wray of Saracens, Peter Wheeler of Leicester and Ken Nottage of Newcastle. The priority is to establish cross- border competition.

"In Britain we still don't know what professional rugby is," Davies said. "What should it look like? How can we build a sustainable, vibrant business instead of clubs expecting wealthy individuals to throw money into a black hole? Unfortunately, the unions have different agendas."

Davies, who is also vice-chairman of the Sports Council for Wales, confesses that at times he is sick and tired of the conflict. "I think to myself, what have I achieved today apart from making another enemy? It's like fire-fighting, yet all we're trying to do is build a product. In terms of change it is the most dynamic business. Instead it has been dragged through the mud.

"After the Swansea game a supporter thanked me for what we were doing. He'd invested pounds 600 in Cardiff and said it was the best money he'd ever spent. It's been tough but that sort of thing makes it easier to bear."