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Rugby Union

Dark clouds over new dawn for Welsh game

Welsh rugby welcomes a new dawn with the start of the Celtic League this evening. A new regional structure and a revamped competition have given rise to some optimism in a nation still reeling from a record 11 Test defeats and endless in-fighting.

But financial problems (Pontypridd are the latest club to consider temporary administration), continued bickering and marketing blunders that have left season-ticket holders ticketless, shops missing new shirts and a competition without a sponsor fuel fears that past problems will return to haunt the brave new world.

Llanelli Scarlets and Cardiff Blues effectively stand alone while three mergers have produced the Neath-Swansea Ospreys, Celtic Warriors (Pontypridd and Bridgend) and Gwent Dragons (Newport and Ebbw Vale).

The fragile peace holding together the structure will depend upon results and if the new teams can bring to an end the Irish domination of this tri-nation competition. "This is a new start for everyone, including myself, but most importantly for Welsh rugby," said Scott Gibbs, who leads the Ospreys at The Gnoll tonight.

Now in its third season, the Celtic competition has grown into a full 12-team league played on a home and away basis with a separate knock-out cup tournament. There has been criticism of the decision to play through the World Cup and Six Nations despite the absence of international players.

"I think it was the wrong year to expand the League given that teams will be without 11 or 12 of their players for most of the games," the Munster team manager, Jerry Holland, said.

OPENING WEEKEND CELTIC LEAGUE fixtures: Tonight: Borders v Celtic Warriors (7.30); Glasgow v Cardiff (7.30); Leinster v Munster (7.35); Neath-Swansea v Ulster (at The Gnoll) (7.05). Tomorrow: Connacht v. Edinburgh (4.0); Llanelli v Gwent Dragons (5.30).