Rugby Union: Rebels loyal to cause of change

As a new season beckons, Cardiff and Swansea risk Welsh wrath with allegiance to a superior product
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The Independent Online
ARMAGEDDON, or at least a 15-a-side version, may take place at the unlikely venues of Bedford and Swansea on Saturday. That is when Wales's two rogue clubs, in the face of all sorts of threats, throw in their lot with the English Premiership, albeit on a "friendly" basis.

Cardiff are due to visit Bedford and Swansea to entertain West Hartlepool in what amounts to a test case. With the proposed British League scuppered, and having turned their backs on the Welsh Rugby Union, Cardiff and Swansea have chosen to spend the season playing against England's premier clubs. There are no points at stake, except those they are making to the governing bodies, but they see advantages. For a start they will play more matches. The top eight clubs in Wales play only 14 games. Familiarity and contempt come to mind. The rebels also argue that they will be involved in a superior product by rubbing shoulders with the English, a claim that not so long ago would have been regarded as treasonable in the Principality. Swansea predicted last week that unless there are changes, professional rugby in Wales will be dead in two years. More might have been tempted to follow the example of the rebels but for the fact that they are now owned lock, stock and two smoking barrels by the WRU.

Cardiff, propped up by a multi-millionaire, have had a gun pointed to their head ever since their refusal to sign the ludicrous 10-year loyalty agreement. Considering the changes that have engulfed rugby since the International Board's revolution in Paris three years ago, a 10-day agreement would be hard to honour let alone 10 years. The safety catch is off and the trigger finger is getting nervous.

On Friday night Cardiff played at Sale, defying an edict from the WRU. "We couldn't understand why," Gareth Davies, the Cardiff chief executive, said. "We've already played Harlequins." On Thursday, Robert Howley, the Cardiff captain and Jonathan Humphreys, the former Wales captain, were told their international careers were under threat. Howley, who has had a hamstring injury, has withdrawn from Wales's sevens team at the Commonwealth Games after consulting with the national coach Graham Henry. In response the WRU warned that anybody who pulled out of the competition would not be allowed to play for their clubs until 10 days after the completion of the Games. "What a great way to treat your players," Davies said. "The whole thing's a total shambles."

By not preventing English clubs associating with Cardiff and Swansea, the Rugby Football Union are also under pressure from the WRU and the IB and the ultimate penalty is expulsion from the World Cup. On Friday the clubs offered a compromise of sorts by agreeing to play Cardiff and Swansea in Wales rather than the strict "League" pattern of home and away. As for the Swalec Welsh Cup, Cardiff and Swansea have been told to join the juniors in the preliminary rounds, which would clash with their English fixtures. The other Welsh clubs are now offering Cardiff and Swansea midweek friendly games.

Last Wednesday saw the formation in London of a Professional Rugby Players' Association, which is one of the more sane developments in the game's wonderland. They propose a Careers Advice Bureau for life after rugby which could soon be inundated with applicants.

The nightmare scenario is England getting kicked out of the World Cup, Cardiff and Swansea expelled from the WRU, the money men in the Premiership cutting their losses, Allied Dunbar Two going into meltdown and Vernon Pugh, Chairman of the IB, joining the International Olympic Committee.

Christopher Haines, who has joined Harlequins as deputy chairman, says the official figure for the combined losses of the Premiership clubs last season is pounds 22m but he thinks the real figure is higher. Asked if Quins' loss was pounds 2.1m he replied: "I wouldn't be at all surprised. They've been pissing money up the wall like there's no tomorrow." Haines, the former chairman of the Jockey Club, added: "I'm a bit depressed about the involvement of the RFU and the other unions. I created the British Horseracing Board to run racing's commercial activity. The role of the unions should be to create a climate for rugby and leave corporate affairs and fixture lists to the clubs."

Last week two of London's finest, Quins and Richmond, behaved in a businesslike manner. The liner may be heading for trouble but the band plays on. At the Stoop, Zinzan Brooke is the player-coach, a role played successfully elsewhere by Rob Andrew and Francois Pienaar.

The sooner some meaningful rugby is played the better and on Saturday players and spectators have a chance to face the music and dance. Richmond, underwritten by Ashley Levett whose investment at the last count was pounds 6m, play the champions Newcastle at the new Madejski Stadium near Reading; another intriguing contest is Leicester versus Quins. Richmond have gained Laurent Cabannes from Quins, Newcastle have lost Pat Lam to Northampton. And how much longer can Andrew run the Falcons? At 14-1 for the title, Richmond think their odds are generous. Saracens expect an average home gate in the region of 12,000. Even that would not prevent them from making a loss, but next year could be different. They are looking at a European league of 24 teams, including eight from England and eight from France.

Perhaps the three candidates for the greatest sympathy are Bath, who can't defend the European Cup; Graham Henry who, when he said he wants the Wales players "on the edge of the edge" did not mean it literally, and Mike Rayer, the former Wales full-back who was a key figure in Bedford's promotion last season. On Wednesday he will reappear in a court in an attempt to secure money which he claims Bedford, or more specifically their patron, Frank Warren, owes him. Rayer wants to become a free agent, Bedford want a transfer fee. Warren says he is putting another pounds 2m into the club. "In the near future," the boxing promoter said, "rugby is going to be a booming business."