Rugby Union: Wales fights for its rugby future

Wounded dragon: There are few signs of progress as internecine strife reduces one of the game's greatest nations to chaos
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A LIGHT aeroplane was circling over Pontypool's ground on Saturday afternoon, dipping its wings to get a closer look at the little parkland amphitheatre, ringed by trees glowing with late-autumn colours. Whoever was at the controls, you could not blame them. The game wasn't bad at all, Pooler staging a late recovery to beat Treorchy by 30 points to 21 in a tense and sometimes tetchy meeting between the fourth and fifth placed sides in the First Division of the Welsh National League. But the ground itself, tucked into the folds below the grazing land of Mynydd Maen, Narrow Mountain, looked a picture, the setting for a rugby idyll.

"I know who that is," a middle-aged woman in the grandstand said, glancing up as the machine droned overhead. "It's the Welsh Rugby Union. They're looking for somewhere to hold the World Cup final."

They could do worse. A few months after the end of World War Two, this ground hosted its record attendance of 27,000 for a meeting between a Monmouthshire Select XV and the New Zealand Kiwis, a services side. Even 15 years ago, crowds of 20,000 would turn up to see Pontypool's legendary front row grind Cardiff's glamour boys into the mud. On Saturday there were almost 3,000 present to watch a match between two sides desperate for promotion to the Premier Division.

But 20 miles to the south, the more seriously desperate condition of Welsh rugby could be seen as workmen laboured around the clock to finish the new pounds 121m Millennium Stadium, on the site of the hallowed Cardiff Arms Park. Power-drills screamed, lofty cranes wheeled, a contractor's sign obscured the wrought-iron lettering of the Nicholls Memorial Gates, and there was no telling whether the edifice will be ready in time for the opening match of the World Cup next October.

The chaos surrounding the building work - overdue, over budget, and subject to mysterious leaks - is the perfect metaphor for a game permanently at odds with itself as it struggles to come to terms with the unyielding realities of professionalism.

It will be at Wembley Stadium that Wales take the field next Saturday to face South Africa, authors of the latest and most profound humiliation visited on the dragon. Had Naka Drotske, the Springboks' replacement hooker, not dropped the ball near the line in the closing moments of the match at Loftus Versfeld last July, the crowd would have seen their side top 100 points against a nation that once considered itself without peer in the game. As it was, a 96-13 scoreline inflicted wounds on the Welsh psyche that may just have been deep enough to bring about the long-postponed reassessment of priorities.

Maybe you could trace the origin of the whole sorry mess back to the day, more than 20 years ago, when Carwyn James - the late, great Carwyn, blessed philosopher-architect of the Lions' 1971 triumph in New Zealand - wrote a letter to the Welsh RU informing them that he was willing to accept the job of coaching Wales on condition that he would be free from interference. The mandarins dismissed such impertinence. Instead of availing themselves of a visionary genius, they opted for a former captain, John Dawes, whose lack of coaching experience was for some time disguised by the depth of playing talent available.

His successors were not so lucky. John Lloyd, John Bevan, Tony Gray and John Ryan came and went as the results deteriorated throughout the Eighties. At the beginning of the present decade, the job, which had become a virtual rescue mission, was handed to Ron Waldron, in the hope that the Stakhanovite ethic forged at Neath would be transferrable to international rugby. It was not. Nor was the reliance on Japanese industrial management techniques and on psychometric testing favoured by his successor, the cerebral Alan Davies. When Davies was replaced by Kevin Bowring, it seemed that the committee had finally taken the step of giving the job to a man whose hair had already turned white. But the careworn Bowring was already out of the way when a temporary incumbent, Dennis John, supervised this summer's debacle in Pretoria. Now a New Zealander, Graham Henry, has been handed the burden, along with a pounds 1.25m five-year contract.

Henry finds himself operating within a context of limitless internecine strife. Wales' two leading clubs, Cardiff and Swansea, seceded from the national league structure during the summer, unwilling to co-operate with a governing body whose reluctance to accept the challenge posed by a changing world has been widely blamed for the decline of the game in one of its historic heartlands.

"Our rugby heritage was based on the mining industry and the grammar schools, and both have disappeared," John Dawes observed at the beginning of this decade. "We have found nothing in their place." Now Welsh rugby is perhaps ready to abandon its myopic arrogance, realising that its redemption will not come in the form of the immaculate conception of a divinely gifted outside-half who will lead them to glory. It must devise its own solution, based on the understanding that such a player will only appear in conditions that are carefully prepared and well maintained.

Treorchy, Pontypool's opponents on Saturday, are a case in point. An old club, founded in 1886, they have nevertheless embraced modern ideas, somewhat controversially in the decision to market themselves as Rhondda Zebras, but with undeniable good sense in their establishment of a community- based development scheme. It has been emulated this season by Cardiff, who are now in regular contact with 120 primary schools and 28 comprehensives, funded to the tune of pounds 50,000 over three years by one of the club's corporate sponsors.

"We have an appalling record of developing local talent," Gareth Davies, the former Wales stand-off who is now Cardiff's chief executive, told me this week. "Terry Holmes was the last British Lion born in Cardiff. That's a pretty sad statistic. We don't want to wait 20 years for the next one."

Davies is firm in his opinion that "like it or not, the game at club level is dying. There's been a total lack of leadership." Cardiff's decision to opt for financial self-sufficiency and a fixture list consisting, this season, of friendlies against English clubs, has been vindicated by a rise in attendances, with crowds of more than 10,000 watching the games against Saracens and Richmond. They may be further rewarded by participation in whatever form of British or European league eventually comes into being.

But Cardiff, with a budget for players' wages running into seven figures, occupy a privileged position. Back at Pontypool's level, brave long-term decisions are harder to take. Where the likes of Ray Prosser, Graham Price, Charlie Faulkner, Bobby Windsor, Eddie Butler and Terry Cobner once trod, patience is not seen as a virtue and success cannot come soon enough.

"There's a fundamental problem," David Bishop observed on Saturday. At 38, the former bad boy of Welsh rugby is now reborn as the player-coach of the club he first joined at 21. "We've been discussing the idea of setting up an academy," he said. "That's all well and good, but the priority must be to put the first team in order. And in the Premier Division, clubs need players who are the finished product. They can't afford to bring a boy in and give him his apprenticeship."

Bishop, who would surely have won many more honours than his single cap at scrum-half for Wales had an unfortunate talent for after-hours mayhem not intervened, is in charge of a young squad, about a quarter of the 32 players being full-time professionals. Promotion would mean a complete rethink. "We'd have to draw up a shopping list," he mused, overcoming a reluctance to tempt fortune by contemplating the possibility. "It's no good just consolidating and battling for survival. But there's not an unlimited supply of money here."

He was speaking with the slightly defensive air of a man accustomed to jealous accusations. And, in financial terms, Pontypool are indeed probably better placed than some of their rivals. Recently threatened with extinction, the club was saved by a consortium of businessmen led by Eddie Butler, their former captain.

On the playing side, the drop was averted, in the view of most supporters, by the efforts of Bishop, who tugged the No 9 jersey over his expanding midriff and performed miracles. It is a habit he clearly finds hard to break, since on Saturday his team were defending an 18-17 lead, and on the slide, when he rose from the bench and replaced his young scrum-half in time to guide the team to safety (although not before his passionate intervention in a dispute had led to a long private lecture from the referee).

"I've got a special feeling for this club," he said afterwards. "As a town, Pontypool doesn't exactly roll off your tongue. But, thanks to the rugby club, the name is known all around the world. We haven't always been popular, because of the way we went about our business. We didn't want any friends, and we didn't make many. Some people despised us for that, and they were pleased when the cracks started to appear. The year I came back, we lost 11 players. Last season was the most despairing time I've had in rugby. But this year I can say that I've never been happier at Pontypool."

At one point in our conversation, talking about the need for success and the reaction of the fans, Bishop offered the opinion that "the game is not about loyalty, on either side. It's about winning. It's a business."

But I knew differently. I had watched him that afternoon. I had seen him directing the pre-match exercises, organising the photographer to take pictures of the schoolboy mascots, cajoling his team from the sidelines and, eventually, joining them at the centre of the action.

I had seen him thanking the officials as he shepherded the players from the pitch, and finally being the last man out of the changing-room. I had seen a man in his element. Whether I had seen the past, the present or the future of Welsh rugby, I could not say. For a couple of hours, it did not seem to matter. Next Saturday, of course, will be different.