Alan Watkins: Powergen Cup gives English clubs chance to learn from Welsh

Players and administrators welcome an additional route into Europe

The Quins players, so I was told, enjoyed the games but did not like playing them at what was then called HQ; as it may be still by some people, though the old dark green wood and corrugated iron have been pulled down and the ghosts have gone away. The Harlequins preferred The Stoop, which they regarded as their club ground, as it remains today, much refurbished and improved, even though the club does not occupy quite the place in English rugby which it once did.

Everyone enjoyed these fixtures, not least the English club secretaries or, rather, treasurers, for the visit of Cardiff or Llanelli could put several thousand on a gate. Then, with the arrival of professionalism and an English Premier Division, the old system, which contrived to be both arbitrary and useful, came to an end.

There was, true, a brief period when Cardiff and Swansea deserted their Welsh brethren to play in England, but that soon collapsed. The Welsh clubs were supposedly transformed into regions - in reality, they were the old clubs of Llanelli, Neath-Swansea, Cardiff and Newport. They played in a Celtic League which aroused no real enthusiasm, whether in Ireland, Scotland or Wales.

The only competition to bring about any excitement in Wales was the Heineken European Cup. Even here, however, Llanelli Scarlets usually flattered to deceive, as the racing writers used to put it; while Neath-Swansea Ospreys (who now want to be called The Ospreys only) and Cardiff Blues were a consistent disappointment.

Throughout the dark days for the Welsh national side, the conclusion was consistently drawn that their standard of rugby was suffering from the exclusion of Welsh clubs from regular competition with the likes of Bath (at any rate, the Bath of the 1990s), Wasps and Leicester. By the same process of reasoning, the success of the England side, culminating in the 2003 World Cup, was held to derive from the hard and ruthless quality of what is now the Guinness Premiership, from which the Welsh clubs were excluded.

They still are excluded. I must confess I should prefer it if they were not, and if the four so-called regions were included initially in an enlarged top division. They would, of course, be subject to relegation, which would raise the difficult question of their downward destination; of where precisely they would go. But as it is not going to happen we need not worry too much about it. What has happened is the new Powergen Cup.

There has been a tendency among players and administrators to welcome this competition not because of any intrinsic merits which it may possess but, rather, because it offers an additional route into Europe. This is understandable enough. But suspicious as I am of too many competitions, I still welcome this particular Anglo-Welsh revival.

And yet, the terms of rugby trade have changed. Even two years ago, the new competition would have been seen as benefiting the Welsh. Today, it is English rugby which is regarded as having something to learn. The rugby correspondents have been picking a whole string of young Welsh players whom England could use. What a difference one Grand Slam makes!

During the second half of the Gloucester v Ospreys match, when the Welsh forwards were not exactly being given a rough time but, more, being closed down, I wrote out the names of an ideal Neath-Swansea pack: Billy Williams, Barry Williams, Courtney Meredith, Rees Stephens, Roy John, Dave Morris, Mervyn Davies, Clem Thomas.

Barry Williams, consistently undervalued by the Welsh selectors, is the only current representative. Even so, modern players are not only fitter but bigger than their predecessors. For instance, at 13st 7lb, John would be told to put on at least a stone and half if he wanted to qualify, not as a lock, but merely as an open-side flanker. I still think he would have given Gloucester some trouble in the line-out.


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