Rugby Union: Wales plumb the depths of farce and chaos

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The Independent Online
IF ENGLISH rugby politics is generally a humour-free zone, the committee-room wrangling on the far side of the Severn Bridge has plumbed such unfathomable depths that the only sound to be heard is that of laughter in the darkness. Gareth Davies, the Cardiff chief executive, came out with a classic one-liner yesterday when, during a colourful description of Thursday night's disciplinary hearing with the Welsh Rugby Union at which his club was fined pounds 150,000, he said: "I've been in some kangaroo courts in my time, but the only thing missing from this one was Rolf Harris."

As a pithy summary of the state of the domestic game in Wales, it could hardly have been bettered. By slapping identical arbitrary fines on both Cardiff and Swansea - the other top side currently engaged in a programme of unsanctioned rebel fixtures against the leading English Premiership clubs - the WRU has revealed the inherent weakness of its own position. The union would far rather have expelled its two refuseniks, but knew it would be playing into their hands to do so. If Cardiff and Swansea suddenly found themselves free agents, they would throw an immediate party.

The chances of either club actually paying the fine are about as remote as their deciding to sign up the WRU's loyalty agreement, the imposition of which led to their breakaway in the first place. "I can only think that the union decided on the fines in an effort to escape censure from the International Board, which wants to see us punished for playing these games against the English," said Davies. "It's no coincidence that we were fined less than 24 hours before the WRU was scheduled to go before the board's disciplinary panel."

These latest developments leave the game in Wales in a state of advanced chaos. On the one hand, the union wants to create four so-called "super clubs" as a means of raising playing standards; on the other, it has just punished the two clubs with the strongest claims to "super" status. Indeed, Cardiff were said last night to be reconsidering their formal bid for one of the four franchises on offer.

Even more shambolically, it was still not clear yesterday whether Cardiff remained in this season's Swalec Cup, even though they were scheduled to play Llandovery this afternoon. Cardiff insisted building work on the new Millennium Stadium had rendered their own Arms Park venue unplayable and offered Llandovery a series of midweek dates. Their opponents, meanwhile, said the several farmworkers amongst their squad could play only at a weekend and offered to stage the match at their own ground - an offer Cardiff abruptly rejected.

Meanwhile, the English clubs could not resist having their say on matters Welsh. "We believe that the aggressive action of the WRU in fining Cardiff and Swansea is extremely unnecessary and particularly unhelpful at a time when talks are being held to resolve rugby in the northern hemisphere for the ultimate benefit of all," said Howard Thomas, the acting chief executive of English First Division Rugby.

Bristol, the Premiership Two title challengers, have suspended David Knox, their Australian outside-half, for 30 days and fined him pounds 5,000 following his dismissal in last Sunday's important match at Worcester. Knox, a former Wallaby stand-off who started his Test career in 1985 and completed it only a year ago, was sent off for dissent after just 20 minutes of a game his side went on to lose 20-9.

His club ban runs from December 13 to January 12 inclusive, while the pounds 5,000 will be donated to the charity SPIRE, which supports rugby players who have suffered serious neck injuries.

Knox appeared before a club disciplinary panel earlier this week, which was then adjourned while he sought legal advice. He is among several overseas signings made by Dwyer this season in a bid to ensure that Bristol regain Premiership One status at the first attempt.