Impoverished Celts bemoan lure of Anglo-French riches

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The Independent Online

Wales and Scotland, financially challenged to such a degree that they are even shorter of money than they are of results, are pressing the international rugby community to address the economic imbalance that threatens to wreak as much havoc in Europe as in the southern hemisphere, where the Pacific Islands unions are close to bankruptcy. David Moffett, chief executive of the Welsh Rugby Union, confirmed his intention to raise the issue when the Six Nations committee next meets.

Moffett, not one to spare the sensibilities of others, spent much of yesterday lambasting the cash-rich clubs of England and France for throwing money at home-grown players plying their trade with the newly-established Welsh regional teams. "These countries are rugby powerhouses, but it won't do them much good if they have no one to play," he said, warning that top-level rugby would soon resemble Premiership football in England, where "only two or three teams are able to compete".

The chief executive saved his sharpest criticism for the French clubs, who are chasing three outstanding Welsh backs - the Celtic Warriors utility back Gareth Thomas, the Neath-Swansea Ospreys wing Shane Williams and the Llanelli Scarlets outside-half Stephen Jones. "The French are artificially inflating the transfer market," Moffett fumed. "They don't have a salary cap, and seem to be a law unto themselves. It's not just Wales. If they targeted Brian O'Driscoll" - the captain of Ireland and one of the most valuable players in world rugby - "they would get him through financial muscle."

Llanelli appear to have resigned themselves to losing Jones. "Clubs from both England and France have offered Stephen double his current salary, and we simply cannot compete," said Stuart Gallacher, the chief executive at Stradey Park. "How are we expected to make a decent fist of the Heineken Cup with one hand tied behind our back?"

Wales were not alone in moaning and groaning about the injustices of the game. Matt Williams, the Australian who coached Scotland to the most worm-eaten of wooden spoons in this season's Six Nations, admitted commercial realities were undermining his aim of keeping the best Scottish players in the best Scottish teams.

"We're not helping ourselves by allowing our players to leave Scotland," he said. "We are trying to set up a nationally co-ordinated approach to the international game, but the process becomes very difficult when extreme financial pressure causes people to play in England. Players have to understand that by leaving this country, they have chosen to put Scotland second. That's fine, but there are obvious ramifications. People who play for the professional teams here deserve our loyalty."

Yesterday, Williams named a 54-man squad for next week's fitness session - the first leg of the build-up for the summer Tests against Australia and Samoa. Some of the most prominent players - Tom Smith, Jason White, Simon Danielli - will playrugby in England next season, and while the coach has just about accepted that imperfect reality, he must have been flabbergasted when one of Scotland's brightest scrum-halfs, Mark McMillan of Glasgow, confirmed a move to Leeds, having been recommended by none other than the Glasgow captain and international flanker Cameron Mather.

As expected, Wasps have included Simon Shaw in the line-up for Sunday's Heineken Cup semi-final with Munster in Dublin. Shaw will be heavily strapped, having suffered a damaged spleen in an alleged stamping incident during last weekend's Premiership win at Leeds. Warren Gatland, the Wasps coach, accused the Yorkshire side's flanker, Colm Rigney, but Rugby Football Union officials who viewed video footage will not take any action.

Instead, they took Gatland to task for pointing his finger at Rigney. "We have established a procedure that includes the facility for individual clubs to ask the relevant citing officer to look at a particular incident," said Jeff Blackett, the union's disciplinary officer. "I would encourage all directors of rugby to use this facility, rather than raise issues through the media."

Both Wasps and Munster have retained the line-ups that started their respective quarter-finals against Gloucester and Stade Français. Sale, however, have made several changes for tonight's Premiership match with Newcastle - the team who beat them in last weekend's Cup final. The injured Jos Baxendell is replaced by Vaughan Going, while the scrum-half Nick Walshe and the lock Iain Fullarton, have given way to Richard Wigglesworth and Chris Day.