Rugby Union: Shadows over Stradey: Richard Williams hears how Llanelli are aiming to recapture the Scarlet fervour of old

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The Independent Online
WHEN SCOTT Quinnell went north last month with Wigan's pounds 400,000 contract in his pocket, perhaps only one Llanelli player did not entirely share the gloom that suddenly descended upon Welsh rugby.

For Ian Hembrow, Quinnell's departure offered a second chance to establish himself in Llanelli's pack - and to remind the national selectors of his existence. But on Wednesday night in Maesteg, while taking a shower after a victory which briefly lightened the mood of a troubled season, Hembrow sneezed. And put himself out of action for a month.

With that surreal incident, another entry was made in the Scarlets' lengthening catalogue of woes. In news terms, Hembrow's injury hardly matched Quinnell's sudden exit, or the ghastly accident that befell Ieuan Evans last weekend, when the great winger dislocated his ankle to such a hideous degree that three spectators fainted. Perhaps the 25-year- old Hembrow should have suspected something when he took an apparently harmless knock on Wednesday. But he thought nothing of it until the sneeze in the shower, which led to a sudden swelling and the immediate diagnosis of a cracked cheekbone. Which had people wondering: how much more misfortune can Llanelli take?

'Our spirits are very high,' Rupert Moon said on Friday, answering a question about the dressing-room mood following the season's traumatic start. Llanelli's Walsall-born captain and scrum-half was putting on his best face. 'We know we're good enough,' he continued. 'We've got something to offer, and we can still entertain.' But Hembrow, he said, will now be out for a month; which means that, since last season, the club has lost five back-row forwards of international standard, sending the selectors scrabbling through their address books.

One man they will not be inviting to fill the vacancy is Emyr Lewis, who left for Cardiff in the summer after concluding that Quinnell's emergence would deny him exclusive rights to the No 8 shirt for the foreseeable future. Lewis was in the team that beat Llanelli in Cardiff eight days ago, scoring one try and setting up two more; last Wednesday it was announced that he will take Quinnell's place in the national team for the World Cup seeding match against Italy at the Arms Park on Wednesday.

After opening the league season with wins over Swansea and Abertillery, Llanelli's fortunes have gone awry. Defeats by Pontypool, Treorchy and Cardiff have left them eighth in Division One: a poor showing for a club which won the championship in 1992-93, after being runners-up in the preceding two seasons, and which narrowly missed winning a fourth Welsh Cup in a row last May.

Wales's team sheet on Wednesday will provide at least a partial explanation. Despite the loss of Quinnell, Lewis, Evans and others, the Welsh team will still contain five Llanelli players, with three more among the substitutes. Success may be part of the problem.

'It's a great honour for the club,' said Moon, who is the national team's scrum-half. 'But it meant that we weren't able to train and play together often enough last season. If you want to be successful, you've got to have the players together week in, week out.'

'Look at the Welsh team against England at Twickenham last March,' the club's coach, Allan Lewis, said. 'We had nine players on the field, in a team going for the Grand Slam and the Triple Crown. The next week they were back to face Neath in the cup

quarter-final. What they did for us at The Gnoll was magnificent. But it drained them. We trudged through the semi-final against Maesteg. The spark had gone. We were hoping they had one more big game left in them for the final against Cardiff, but it just wasn't there.'

'I sympathise,' said Derek Quinnell, the great Llanelli and Wales forward who is now a national selector - and the father not only of Scott but of Craig, a burly 6ft 6in 19-year-old

second-row forward on the brink of following his elder brother into Llanelli's first team. 'Nowadays,' their father said, 'the commitment to the Welsh squad is like the commitment to a club. It does take a toll. In turn, we've got to recognise that the clubs are where the players are bred, and that they have a commitment to their supporters.'

Some critics suggest that Llanelli's traditionally expansive style of running rugby - embodied in such individuals as Barry John, Carwyn James and Jonathan Davies - is being compromised by the international players, who return from Welsh coaching sessions with their heads full of a tighter, less adventurous approach.

'We play an open game with Wales, too,' Moon said, 'but it's international rugby, and the standard is higher. With Wales we have to be more clinical, because the chances aren't going to come along as often, and you have to make the most of them when they do.'

There's also the question of motivation. 'Divided loyalties may not be the right phrase,' Allan Lewis said, 'but there's only a certain amount of motivation within each player. They'd won everything with Llanelli, so the next thing that motivated them was the national team. Now it's the World Cup. They've all been extremely loyal over the years, in the lean times as well as the good. But we lose them for a fortnight when they join the Welsh squad - and this year there will have been three international matches before Christmas.'

Buried deeper is an even more damaging result of Llanelli's recent lack of success on the field. Three years ago, a new stand was built at Stradey Park, costing pounds 650,000. Problems with the funding led to the entire sum being borrowed from the Midland Bank, with repayments scheduled over 10 years. Which was fine, when the cash was coming in through the turnstiles. But at the end of last season it emerged that diminished gates had cost the club pounds 60,000, making it impossible to meet the repayments. The committee's controversial solution was to sell off part of Stradey's vast car park - the source, according to gossip, of the revenue from which the club has long met the 'expenses' of outstanding players - for a supermarket complex, at a price of between pounds 750,000 and pounds 2m.

At a series of turbulent meetings, the membership chose as its scapegoat John Maclean, the chairman - and the author some years ago of a document summarising the official philosophy of the 122- year-old club ('. . . to provide entertainment . . . by playing effective and adventurous winning rugby . . . enjoyable for both player and spectator alike . . .'). Maclean was voted off the committee - 'the victim of politics and petty jealousy,' according to a distinguished old player who remains close to the club - and replaced by Roy Bergiers, the centre who entered into legend when he scored the only try in Llanelli's 9-3 victory over the touring All Blacks in 1972.

After Llanelli's 44-10 victory at Maesteg's Old Parish Ground on Wednesday, Bergiers explained that the car-park sale was still going ahead, subject to planning permission. Like Moon and Lewis, the 43- year-old schoolmaster is clearly bruised by the months of conflict and criticism.

'We're a bit sensitive just now,' he said. 'Look, we've had bad starts before, and ended up beating everybody in sight. We've lost players to rugby league before - Gary Pearce, Jonathan Davies, Jonathan Griffiths - and replaced them.' He waved an arm towards a group of reserves going through a training routine. 'I've been chairman of the

under-21 committee for the last two years. You could see the fruits of our policy tonight.'

It had indeed been easy to admire a Llanelli side packed with young hopefuls intent on exploiting the absence of the senior internationals. Players like the cool 21-year-old scrum-half Huw Harries - Moon's understudy - and the dashing 19- year-old open-side flanker Matthew Codd looked like the basis for a future to match the glorious past.

'People talk about our finances,' Bergiers continued, his breath condensing in the cold night air, 'but we've got our debt down to pounds 350,000, and we're making a profit again. No team has a divine right to be up there permanently. These things go in cycles, don't they?'

The Scarlets' luck will surely change, but perhaps not just yet. As Bergiers spoke, somewhere behind us in the main stand, standing under the steaming shower, Ian Hembrow was preparing to sneeze.

(Photograph omitted)

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