Dragons breathe fresh life into cup's ancient rivalries

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The Independent Online

When Bristol confirmed yesterday that they would rest all 15 first-choice players for tomorrow's Powergen Cup derby with Bath at the Recreation Ground, those who predicted that English teams with better things to exercise their minds - Premiership survival, Heineken Cup rugby, the ongoing political spat with the Rugby Football Union over player burn-out - would use the revamped competition to indulge in wholesale squad rotation could be seen with "told you so" smiles on their faces. The news from Bristol appeared to vindicate their pessimism.

Come the third and final round of pool matches, scheduled for early December, those clubs out of the running for a semi-final place will certainly be throwing Under-21s at the tournament in considerable volume. But some Premiership sides, not least Leicester, believe there is enough in this Powergen business to justify a dabble. Why else would the Midlanders inflict the likes of Ollie Smith, Andy Goode, Harry Ellis, Graham Rowntree and Julian White on the Newport-Gwent Dragons in tonight's opening fixture at Rodney Parade?

From the Welsh perspective, the new Powergen Cup is nothing but a boon. The Celtic League remains half-baked - the lack of sponsorship says all that needs saying about its sex appeal - and while the Heineken Cup offers infinitely more pizzazz, it is difficult to build a meaningful season on only six must-see European fixtures. When the English come to town, on the other hand, they bring another dimension with them.

As Gareth Jenkins, the Llanelli coach, said this week: "My playing career with the Scarlets had Anglo-Welsh games all the way through it. We would play Swansea, Neath and Aberavon four times a season, and as players, we knew each other upside down, inside out. When we went across the bridge, it was like fresh air, freedom. There was a little bit more pride at stake. These were different types of games, and there was an edge to them."

And the English? With a Heineken Cup place on offer for a Premiership team winning the competition, the penny is definitely worth the candle. Only four sides qualify for Europe through the league, so a number of mid-range teams - Bath, Gloucester and Saracens spring to mind - have a strong incentive to take this Anglo-Welsh business seriously. Bristol, intent only on staying in the top flight, may be taking the pragmatic approach, but Bath have named a side featuring the likes of Olly Barkley, Matt Stevens, Danny Grewcock and Steve Borthwick.

The administrators say sponsorship income, added to the broadcasting revenue from the BBC's four-year commitment to the tournament, should top £6m - small beer for the football boys, but a significant contribution to the slowly developing economy of professional rugby union. The all-English fixtures may struggle to get the turnstiles spinning, but a few full houses at the Arms Park or the Morfa Stadium will make it all worthwhile. For the time being, at least.

David Moffett, the man primarily responsible for introducing the four-team regional structure at the élite end of the game in Wales, last night announced his resignation as chief executive of the Welsh Rugby Union. The 58-year-old Australian will leave his post at the end of December for family reasons, completing a three-year tenure culminating in last season's Grand Slam and a pre-tax profit of £3.6m.