Rugby Union: Wales plunder Wallaby talent chest

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THE FIRST Welsh victory over Australia since 1987 may have been secured off the pitch rather than on, but it sent an increasingly buoyant Red Dragonhood into such paroxysms of joy it was almost as if they had dumped the Wallabies out of the World Cup, rather than pinched one of their most promising young players.

The International Rugby Board decreed yesterday that Jason Jones-Hughes, who at least sounds like a Welshman even if he doesn't play like one, can represent the land of his father rather than the land of his birth. Expect some fun and games if the two countries live up to their seedings and meet in the last eight.

Jones-Hughes, a 22-year-old New South Wales centre of rich pedigree, will hot-foot it to Britain later this week and is expected to finalise a club deal with Cardiff before linking up with Graham Henry's squad at a Pembrokeshire training camp.

"This has come as a bit of a shock and I'm still taking it all in," he said, "but it's important that I get over to the UK as quickly as possible." Speed is clearly of the essence, especially as the IRB executive took the best part of three months to reach agreement on the blindingly obvious.

Henry named Jones-Hughes in his 30-man World Cup party in June after discovering the player's father was born in Colwyn Bay. The Wallabies were understandably upset: they had invested an enormous amount of time and expertise in moulding the young midfielder into a player of Test potential and had picked him for their second-string Barbarians team in a match against the touring Scots the previous summer.

But their claim that the appearance amounted to a clear Wallaby commitment by Jones-Hughes was always flimsy, it flew in the face of a number of awkward precedents, and once the player had publicly pledged himself to Wales, the die was cast.

Initially, the IRB supported the Wallaby argument, but the Welsh mounted a successful appeal over the weekend and were duly rewarded with an abrupt volte face. "The outcome vindicates our decision to pursue this matter to the end," said Dennis Gethin, secretary of the Welsh Rugby Union. "We were confident of the strength of our case and confident that the original IRB decision was wrong."

Meanwhile, the crackle of electricity surrounding tonight's World Cup warm-up match between England and a "Premiership All-Star XV" at Anfield would barely illuminate a 40-watt bulb. The Liverpool public appear disinclined, and when Clive Woodward, the red rose coach, damned the fixture with the faintest of praise yesterday, describing it as "a good idea at the time", the last vestige of credibility disappeared into the Mersey ether.

One or two England players will be out to prove a point: Paul Grayson, the Northampton stand-off, has an opportunity to apply some heat on Jonny Wilkinson, while the likes of Phil de Glanville, Jason Leonard, Richard Cockerill and Tim Rodber could use an eye-catching performance. But Woodward, who would have preferred a full-on tussle with a side of England A standard, is unlikely to learn anything new about his charges.

Tim Stimpson, left out of Woodward's World Cup 30, is one of five internationals among the cannon fodder; Pat Howard and Garry Pagel, southern hemisphere Test players both, are the other All-Star stars, along with Alex King and Will Green, two Wasps who also failed to make the England cut. "The important thing from my point of view is to get a competitive game against 15 professionals," said Woodward. The professionals may be in place, but competitive? Please.

Woodward will be more concerned about his preferred scrum-half, Kyran Bracken, than by anything the All-Stars might concoct tonight. Bracken is suffering from a back condition and, according to his club medics at Saracens, he is by no means certain to make England's final warm-up match on Saturday week. If he misses that date, Woodward must decide whether to throw him into World Cup action despite more than three months of inactivity.

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