RUGBY UNION; Wallabies and Wales renew war of words

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The Independent Online
IT IS one of the oldest sporting conflicts of them all and there is no armistice on the horizon. The whingeing Poms and the brass-necked Aussies were at each other's throats once again yesterday, initially over the future of Jason Jones-Hughes, the renowned Welsh Wallaby - or should that be Wallaby Welshman? - and then over the nature of Australia's success in becoming the first nation to win a second Rugby World Cup. The Welsh accused their rivals of being "bloody minded", while the Wallabies accused the old country of everything from bitterness and envy to self-delusion.

Jones-Hughes, too expensive for Cardiff but apparently well within the mega-budget of a resurgent Newport, is still waiting to become a free agent, thanks to his contractual obligations in New South Wales. "It is simply a matter of the Australians releasing him, but they are messing us about and it's disappointing that a player should be subjected to something like this," Graham Henry, the Welsh coach, said. "Jason's registration has been completed and the only thing still to be settled is the amount of compensation involved, but the Australian and New South Wales unions are not responding to any correspondence from us. We've given them an ultimatum, a copy of which has gone to the International Board. In my opinion, they are being bloody minded."

However, the Australians were only too keen to respond to what they considered a churlish British reaction to their re-capture of the Webb Ellis Trophy in Cardiff almost a fortnight ago. "There is a lack of objectivity in the northern hemisphere," said John O'Neill, the fast-talking chief executive of the Australian Rugby Union, by way of answering allegations that the Wallabies were dull, clinical and charmless. "British rugby's malaise runs even deeper than is openly apparent. The home unions haven't come to grips with the age of professionalism in rugby. If they can't win the cup at home, when are they going to win it?"

O'Neill added that immediately after the final at the Millennium Stadium, an unnamed English official accused the Wallabies of "winning on the back of creatine" - a reference to the controversial, if legal, body-building supplement used by many leading players. "I fronted him up and asked if he would care to repeat what he had just said," O'Neill revealed. "He wouldn't."

The Wallabies' exasperation at the ridiculously ill-judged criticism hurled in their direction was neatly captured by Rod Macqueen, the head coach. "These critics are ostriches; they have their heads in the sand and they're lying to themselves," he said. "The statistical truth is that we played more open-handed rugby than any other team in the tournament and as far as the suggestion that we were too defensive goes, it is simply naive. What do we want to do? Go back to being slower, with players missing tackles?"

If there is a malaise in northern hemisphere rugby, it is unlikely to be evident over the next few weeks of Heineken Cup activity; the best attended and most eagerly awaited club competition in the world game starts tomorrow with matches in Cardiff, Dublin and Edinburgh. While Harlequins go to the Arms Park without three first-choice backs - John Schuster, Jamie Williams and Peter Mensah - the chances of Edinburgh Reivers making a much-needed Scottish statement against the Frenchmen of Grenoble have been enhanced by the news that Martin Leslie, the pick of the Scots in the World Cup, is fit to take his place in the back row.

Ulster, the reigning champions, will have to do without the centre Jonathan Bell and the flanker Andy Ward, who are suffering from a fractured thumb and broken foot respectively, in their opening fixture at Bourgoin on Saturday.