Rugby Union: Wales call up the boy from nowhere

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The Independent Online
GRAHAM HENRY may be the most extravagantly rewarded rugby coach in the world, but pounds 250,000 a year is scant consolation when you have to put up with the great and good of the Welsh Rugby Union. No sooner had the quick-witted New Zealander announced his side to play Scotland at Murrayfield in this weekend's opening round of Five Nations matches - Matthew Robinson of Swansea has suddenly appeared from the back end of nowhere to claim a place on the wing - than the whole future of the game in the country went on the line at an emergency meeting of the WRU general committee.

Glanmor Griffiths, the WRU chairman, and his much maligned grey-suiters were thrashing out a final response to plans for a new Anglo-Welsh competition next season. Griffiths had originally insisted that 10 Welsh teams should be involved - the eight existing domestic Premiership sides who signed a 10-year loyalty agreement with the WRU, plus the rebel hordes of Cardiff and Swansea - but the English begged to differ. Their proposal? No more than four Welsh clubs and preferably two.

Henry, who wants to see four elite Welsh clubs and a full British league with all mod cons, is an enormously influential figure, but he may not prove quite influential enough to force the WRU into a mutually beneficial compromise. Besides, he had enough problems of his own yesterday as he attempted to minimise the damage caused by Craig Quinnell's withdrawal from Murrayfield duty.

The Richmond lock damaged a knee during last Tuesday night's Allied Dunbar Premiership match with Leicester and declared himself out of the running over the weekend. Ian Gough, the young Pontypridd forward notoriously punched senseless by Ebbw Vale's Mark Jones earlier in the season, will win his second cap by partnering Chris Wyatt in what now appears a worryingly lightweight engine room.

As if to compensate for the loss of Quinnell's muscle, Henry has beefed up the rest of his tight five by dropping the props who struggled so badly against Argentina before Christmas, Andrew Lewis and Chris Anthony, and pairing the gifted young Swansea loose-head, Darren Morris, with the old Cardiff warhorse, David Young. But it was the promotion of the 25-year- old Robinson, a former Somerset cricketer, that captured the imagination of a rugby public desperate for tangible success after the close shave with South Africa in November.

"Yes, Mark has come from nowhere, but he's been scoring tries and has done enough to win a vote of confidence," said the coach yesterday. Henry had toyed with the idea of running one of his high-quality centres, Allan Bateman or Mark Taylor, out of position in the absence of Gareth Thomas, but he finally decided to stick with the known quantity. "It was a tough decision to make, but in the end I thought I'd be asking too much of Allan or Mark to shift out wide. I really don't like moving people around at this level."

Across the Severn in England, the five London clubs still left in the Tetley's Bitter Cup generally managed to avoid each other in the draw for the quarter-finals. Wasps and London Irish will lock horns at Loftus Road over the weekend of 28 February, but the other three were granted respite from the peculiar pressures of a knock-out derby although Richmond face a tough task at home to Leicester.

Richmond's home advantage over Leicester may not prove too decisive, given the Tigers comprehensive victory a week ago. Harlequins, however, will fancy their chances of a last four place; admittedly, they must travel to Gloucester, but Kingsholm does not frighten anyone these days. Saracens, the holders, have a far more awkward task at Newcastle, where their Premiership challenge went west last season.

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