Rugby Union: Winds of change expose Pontypridd

RUGBY UNION Welsh-Scottish leaders may be excluded from new British league plans due to lack of financial muscle
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The Independent Online
ANY NORMAL sport would treat the muddied, bloodied heroes of Pontypridd Rugby Football Club like working-class royalty; it would celebrate their passionate intensity, glory in their bravery and resilience, respect their traditions and doff a cap to their achievements at home and abroad. It might even find room in its heart to forgive their occasional excesses, as notoriously perpetrated in Le Bar Toulzac a couple of seasons back. But if a British league goes ahead next season, the most successful Welsh team of the professional era may well be sacrificed on the altar of commercial viability.

Even if the audacious - some would say outrageous - scheme by Tom Walkinshaw, the owner of Gloucester and chairman of English First Division Rugby, for a new cross-border tournament fails, Ponty are likely to find themselves up the River Taff without the proverbial paddle.

Officially, they are among the Welsh Rugby Union's most favoured clubs, with their Heineken Cup status and central funding agreement. Unofficially, they are viewed in the past tense. The local momentum, both political and financial, is behind a resurgent Newport, who have the priceless advantage of being a big city outfit. The power-brokers of the Welsh game, not least the national coach, Graham Henry, want to see major league rugby re-established in Gwent and if that means slamming the door on the valleys to the north, then so be it.

Since rugby turned professional in 1995, Ponty have never finished outside the top three of the Welsh Championship, which they pocketed in 1996-97.

They were knock-out champions in 1996, reached the quarter-final play- off stage of the Heineken Cup in 1997-98 and then scrapped their way into the last eight of last season's boycott-ridden tournament. And this term? Driven along by their resourceful new coach, the former international flanker Richie Collins, they lead the Welsh-Scottish League by four clear points after 11 matches and have a fighting chance of winning a hugely competitive Heineken Cup group that includes Colomiers, Saracens and Munster. Victory over the Londoners at Vicarage Road tomorrow would make them favourites to progress.

Yet their future as a front-line club is in serious doubt. Even if they win the Welsh-Scottish title, there is no guarantee that the union will nominate them for big-time rugby next season, either in the Heineken Cup or as one of the four Welsh entrants in any new British league. "It's an awkward one," said one WRU source, rather ominously, this week. "The game is in a state of flux across Britain and as a union we need to stay flexible. At the moment Pontypridd are one of our elite clubs. But with the political situation as volatile as it is, everything is up in the air."

Ironically, Pontypridd have just secured investment totalling pounds 250,000 - a figure that enables them to keep their end of the bargain they struck with the WRU last season and should, in theory, earn them an equivalent amount of cash in the shape of a union grant. "The ball is in the union's court now," Cenydd Thomas, the chief executive at Sardis Road, said. "We signed a loyalty agreement with the WRU last season, when the row with Cardiff and Swansea was at its height and, as far as we are concerned, we have met the criteria on which the financial deal depends. We haven't received a penny yet, mind you, but we're hopeful the formalities will soon be completed.

"As for this British league business... well, we've been talking about the thing for six years now and no one has been able to agree on how it should be run, or who should run it. If it happens, I only hope the Union approaches it on a meritocratic basis and rewards those teams who deserve to be rewarded. It's a personal point of view and quite possibly a naive one, but if a British league happens and there is room for four Welsh clubs, I'd like to think the union will do the simple, straightforward and honest thing and nominate the top four finishers in this season's domestic competition.

"If they do anything else, they'll look very stupid indeed, just as they looked stupid when they denied Ebbw Vale their rightful place in this year's Heineken Cup because Cardiff and Swansea were suddenly back in the picture. We can put one such incident down to experience, but they really shouldn't try it on a second time. If we're outside the top four come the end of the season, then we'll only have ourselves to blame. If we are in the top four, we'd expect our dues."

Worryingly for Thomas, fairness is not a recognisable part of this brutal professional era. Never the richest of clubs, Ponty lost three outstanding home-grown talents over the close season: Kevin Morgan left for Swansea, while Martyn Williams and, most wounding, Neil Jenkins pushed off to Cardiff. At the same time, Newport were spending their English millionaire sugar- daddy's money as though it were going out of fashion. Gary Teichmann, Franco Smith, Simon Raiwalui, Shane Howarth and Peter Rogers all pitched up at a revitalised Rodney Parade and were subsequently joined by Jason Jones-Hughes, the subject of last summer's tug-of-love between Wales and Australia. In an age where money does all the talking, the Black and Ambers are shouting more loudly than anyone.

"It hurt us, losing Neil and the others," Thomas admitted, "and we could only react in one of two ways: we could either tear our hair out and go belly-up, or we could grit our teeth and get on with it. I'm happy to say we chose the positive course and it's a tribute to our strength in adversity that we're sitting on top of the league right now. We're playing some bloody good stuff, too; we beat Colomiers in the Heineken Cup and then put 40 on a full-strength Glasgow Caledonians side last weekend. At Pontypridd, we take a pretty basic view of life. We give it our best effort and see what happens. What's happening at the moment is that we're winning."

And losing at the same time, sadly, especially at the turnstiles. Ponty's crowds are seriously down, even for the kind of big European occasions that attracted five-figure gates to Sardis Road in seasons gone by. "Live television is crucifying us," Thomas said. "I know it's important to the financial well-being of the game, but the kick-off times we're being given are diabolical: 7.15pm on a Friday , 5.30pm on a Saturday. The traditional supporter, the working man who knew we'd be playing our rugby at 3pm on a Saturday and planned his weekend around it, is losing patience and losing interest. It's a big problem for us, but we're not alone. Crowds are down across Wales."

However, Thomas is cute enough to realise that the increasingly desperate attempts to make rugby's sums add up may cost Pontypridd more dearly than their fellow Welsh big guns, all of whom can generate more cash more quickly in the event of having to buy a seat at next season's top table. "Things are going to get worse before they get better, and I just wonder how long the club owners can continue pouring money into the game," the chief executive mused this week. Alarmingly for Ponty, they may just hang in there long enough to turn Sardis Road into a graveyard.