Henry anger at Bath's treatment of young Welsh

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The Independent Online

If Graham Henry and the Welsh rugby hierarchy are annoyed at the number of promising young players earning their corn on the wrong side of the Severn, they are even less entertained by the fact that some of them are not getting a proper game in a month of Sundays. Henry, the sharp-talking New Zealander who has coached the Welsh national team for almost two years, yesterday claimed big-time English Premiership clubs like Bath were being "unfair" to many junior members of the Red Dragonhood, saying they should "either play them or release them".

If Graham Henry and the Welsh rugby hierarchy are annoyed at the number of promising young players earning their corn on the wrong side of the Severn, they are even less entertained by the fact that some of them are not getting a proper game in a month of Sundays. Henry, the sharp-talking New Zealander who has coached the Welsh national team for almost two years, yesterday claimed big-time English Premiership clubs like Bath were being "unfair" to many junior members of the Red Dragonhood, saying they should "either play them or release them".

Henry's words drew a no-nonsense response from Jon Callard, the former England full-back who coaches Bath, and the outbreak of verbals should ensure a lively hour or so when accuser visits accused at the Recreation Ground on Friday. The two men are scheduled to discuss a wide range of issues, some of them related to Henry's "other" job as head coach of the 2001 Lions. However, it is now likely that the immediate futures of three of the most gifted youngsters in Welsh rugby - the scrum-half Gareth Cooper, the flanker Gavin Thomas and the teenage prodigy Andrew Lloyd - will dominate the agenda.

Concern was first raised by Alan Phillips, the manager of the Welsh development squad, whose sledgehammer comments caused quite a stir in the valleys yesterday. "I'm quite old fashioned about these things," he said, "and I have to say that if these players want to go to England to earn more money, they should realise that it could jeopardise their selection for Wales. That is not a threat. It simply reflects the fact that if they are playing in England, it's harder for the coaching team to go to see them. If they're not getting picked, it is even more unlikely that they will get the chance to move on to full international level."

Phillips highlighted Cooper as a particular worry. The 21-year-old half-back from Bridgend cut a serious dash during Wales' developmental tour of Canada in the summer, but is currently playing second fiddle to the experienced New Zealander, Jon Preston, at Bath. Unhappily for Henry and company Thomas, a mobile, ball-handling open side, is similarly blocked by a second Super 12 refugee, Angus Gardiner. Lloyd, just out of school but the talk of the parish none the less, is unlikely to feature at first-team level before next season.

"How can I pick a guy who isn't playing any rugby?" asked Henry yesterday. "Some of these people came on a stack in Canada during the close season, but they won't develop much further if they never get on the pitch. I think Bath should either play them or release them; they have to be fair about it. There are a number of A internationals coming up over the next few weeks, but it will be difficult for someone like Cooper to get involved on the basis of one bench appearance in five weeks."

Callard was distinctly underwhelmed by the wailing and gnashing of teeth from over the border. "It's pretty daft to suggest that we're holding these players back," he said. "Cooper and Thomas are important members of the Bath squad - there aren't many Premiership games when they're not named in the 22 - and I consider them absolutely central to what we're trying to achieve here. I've gone on record as saying that it's my mission to develop Cooper as an international-class scrum-half during the course of this season.

"As for Lloyd - well, one of the reasons he's not playing first-team rugby is that he's not playing any rugby at all. He's injured; he has problems with his knee and he'll be missing for another two months. But he's also a fantastic prospect. I don't want any of these players to leave the club."

There was a more positive side to yesterday's events in Wales when Micky Steele-Bodger, the indefatigable president of the Barbarians, confirmed that a raft of front-line southern hemisphere Test players - Christian Cullen, Matthew Burke, Daniel Herbert and Jonah Lomu - had accepted invitations to turn out in the Scottish Amicable Challenge match with the touring Springboks at Cardiff's Millennium Stadium on 10 December. Bob Dwyer, who has rather cornered the market in one-off coaching jobs, will prepare a side likely to be fleshed out by Welsh and Irish players.

"There were times in the past when I thought this kind of fixture might never happen again, but I'm delighted to say that we seem to have a waiting list of leading players desperate to play," said Steele-Bodger. What is more, they are willing to play for nothing, despite the fact that the Boks will rake in some £7,000 a man for their trouble.

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