RUGBY UNION: Welsh giants are left stranded

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THE ON-OFF saga of the British league - longer running than The Mousetrap, more confusing than Twin Peaks - made a tantalisingly brief return to the nation's rugby agenda yesterday as Cardiff and Swansea joined forces in a final attempt to resurrect a project already presumed dead and buried last week. Inevitably, it was then scrapped for the umpteenth time, leaving the Welsh giants stranded in the sporting equivalent of no man's land.

The English and Welsh unions acted quickly to reject any notion that an elite 24-team tournament might be put in place for a forthcoming campaign already reduced to a laughing stock by the inability of rugby's alleged leaders to agree on anything more complex than the day of the week. "While we wish to continue talks with the clubs and other unions on the possible launch of a future cross-border competition, logistical reasons dictate that it cannot become a reality for this season," said Brian Baister, the chairman of the Rugby Football Union's management committee.

Representatives of Cardiff and Swansea put new proposals to the general committee of the Welsh Rugby Union last night following several hours of negotiations. The failure of their initiative left the two most ambitious and powerful teams in the principality facing new ultimatums to sign the WRU's controversial 10-year loyalty agreement - a demand Cardiff, in particular, have always rejected out of hand.

Club officials had originally been given until 1pm yesterday to put pen to paper but as with an entire catalogue of previous deadlines, the moment passed. Instead, officials from the two clubs requested an audience with Dennis Gethin, the secretary of the union, and Les Williams, the vice- chairman, in an effort to square the political circle.

The clubs were still threatened with expulsion from the union as last night's deliberations ended, but the Welsh administrators were acutely aware of the consequences for an already mediocre Premiership competition. Cardiff, the richest club in the principality, were furious at the WRU's refusal to back the immediate formation of a British league last week and, in their own words, had no intention of committing themselves to an impoverished domestic fixture programme.

Cardiff completed the signing of Robert Jones, the former Wales and Lions scrum-half, from Bristol, despite their uncertain future. Bob Dwyer, who started work as Bristol's director of rugby yesterday afternoon, was quickly forced to accept that attempts to keep Jones on board had failed.

"I spoke to Robert over the weekend and reassured him that he had a part in our future, but I don't suppose you can blame him for going," said the Australian. "He'll be joining some guys with whom he has played a lot of international rugby and he'll feel comfortable in that environment."