Alan Watkins On Rugby: A week proves a long time for Welsh clubs

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The Independent Online

Having been born in Swansea, for reasons to do with hospitals and nursing homes rather than anything else, I have always had a dual loyalty to them and Llanelli. Their recent amalgamation with Neath to form the Ospreys has changed the balance slightly, though not by much (for several players I knew as a boy went on to turn out for Neath). It is a pity, too, that the old St Helens ground is no more for the purposes of top-flight rugby, though judging by the television pictures its replacement, the Liberty Stadium, is a fine ground.

Despite these changes, it was without hesitation that I broke my self-imposed rule on Sunday afternoon and, courtesy of Sky, watched two rugby matches on the trot. I did this not just because of local loyalties but because Anglo-Welsh fixtures are becoming something of a rarity.

That was why the new Powergen Cup was welcomed to begin with. The warmth of the welcome has now abated somewhat, with the English clubs (who have three representatives in the March semi-finals) complaining that the new competition interferes with their preparation for the Guinness Premiership and the Heineken Cup alike.

Nothing is more futile than having regrets about what might have been, and no exercise more profitless than sitting down at a desk, or in front of a word processor, and working out some ideal system for a perfect world.

Having said this, I would go on to say that it is a great pity that the Welsh regional sides did not organise themselves before they did and join an English Premiership which (as Rob Andrew suggested in a report sometime ago) did not have promotion and relegation. But we are stuck with what we have. We should perhaps give thanks that the Heineken Cup is proving as successful as it is.

After the first set of meaningful Anglo-Welsh matches, the weekend before last - with Llanelli convincingly beating Wasps at Stradey Park and the Ospreys putting up an attractive though ultimately unsuccessful performance at Welford Road - some flattering theories about Welsh rugby were doing the rounds. The principal theory was that, as the four so-called regions played their season without the risk of relegation, they were readier to take risks than their English counterparts, who lived their lives in fear of the drop.

What a difference a week can make! Ospreys v Leicester was not a bad match - Leicester's victory came straight out of the old Boys' Own Paper - but it was distinguished by niggle, bad temper and outright foul play.

It is not for me to anticipate the decisions of the citing authorities. In any case, I am not sure that I agree with a whole tit-for-tattish paraphernalia of citing. But if I were in Gavin Henson's place I would not sleeptoo easily. As most of his recent misfortunes have not been of his own making, it seems a pity for him to add to them deliberately.

As we are in the citing business, I would advance the name not of a Leicester player but of their forwards coach, Richard Cockerill. I could not hear what he was saying, but what is called his body languagewas of an extreme nature. Indeed, he was loftily rebuked for his excesses by the Neath coach, Lyn Jones.

The trouble with Cockerill is that he is a walking provocation and always has been. His very presence on the field was enough to present at least six points to the opposition (and though Henson had an indifferent day with the boot, Ospreys might have won if he had been assigned kicking duties from the beginning). Even so, Cockerill seems to have been unjustly treated by Sir Clive Woodward when he was the England coach. So it is perhaps not surprising if he is prickly.

One of the surprising features of the match, to me, was not just the presence of Shane Williams on the bench but Jones' omission to bring him on at any stage of the second half. True, the Ospreys were leading and, correctly foreseeing the course of events, they were anxious to add to their margin; hence the plethora of attempted drop goals.

Alas, Gareth Jenkins, the Llanelli Scarlets coach, has fewer consolations. The Wasps' back play, in particular that of Tom Voyce, showed not the slightest sign of excessive caution. If England can manage to do without Voyce, they clearly possess some very speedy backs.

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