Gatland fears 'soap opera' as Welsh refuse to sing in unison

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The Independent Online

Warren Gatland isn't sure whether he is coming or going. No sooner was he confirmed as the Lions forwards coach for next summer's tour to South Africa than he was talking about the huge challenge posed by the Springboks. The tourists would have seven weeks to gel in their mission to beat the world champions on the high veld.

That is not what is concerning him now. Much closer to home, he is caught in the middle of a classic club (or regions) versus country confrontation which threatens to undermine Wales's cause before it has even begun.

Gatland said he has questioned his position as head coach and was feeling "pretty despondent". The issue, as ever, is player access – and money. England went through civil war before finding agreement with the clubs.

It is not South Africa in 2009 that worries Gatland; it is South Africa next month. Wales take on the Boks in Cardiff on 8 November, and the four regions say they will not release players until after the pool stage of the EDF Energy Cup. Ospreys, who have 13 players in the Wales squad, play London Irish on 2 November.

That leaves Gatland with just five days to prepare the team. "It has taken the gloss off my position," he said. "I feel very frustrated that the two sides can't get together and thrash it out. I might have to look at my position if this carries on. It's no good for anyone if you send out a team that gets well beaten because of poor preparation."

At a meeting a couple of weeks ago Gatland told the opposing factions: "There are no winners here. We don't win and the regions don't win." He claims that one of the chief executives replied: "That's Welsh rugby for you."

Gatland added: "This is a huge season and if I was a player I'd be concerned that a couple of poor performances in November might have a bearing on the end of the season. National management and players have been dragged into non-rugby issues."

The dispute took an Alice in Wonderland twist last week when the regions – Ospreys, Cardiff Blues, Scarlets and Newport Gwent Dragons – announced the appointment of the Australian David Moffett as their interim chief executive. This is the man who, as chief executive of the WRU, pushed for the formation of the regions, forcing clubs to merge. Moffett, who made his money in waste management in Sydney, might consider the Wales management to be a waste of space. He is not a close friend to Roger Lewis, his successor as the union's chief executive, and the two could well collide head on.

Gatland says that under the existing agreement he is entitled to 13 days with his squad prior to the November Tests and the same before the Six Nations. Contracted to Wales up to the conclusion of the World Cup in New Zealand in 2011, he proposed a compromise. He would have the players tomorrow, Tuesday and Wednesday, after which they would be released for the EDF Cup. The move won legal backing on Friday although Moffett said it would cause a "serious deterioration" between the two parties.

It is, however, issues from last year's World Cup that put the regions in a bolshie mood. They were asked to come up with a figure for the cost of releasing their players and all four sub-mitted a bill for £882,000. The WRU's response was an offer of £530,000, which was subsequently withdrawn.

They have been talking for over a year about the creation of a new "rugby charter" between the teams and the governing body but, until they receive their cheques, the regions say it is not worth the paper it is written on. "A stronger partnership is required," a spokesman said. "England and France have progressive partnerships. We've reached agreements with the WRU before and they've been broken. There is a lack of strategic planning."

The RFU and the Guinness Premiership clubs have an eight-year elite player agreement worth £100 million to the clubs for the release of players. The England manager, Martin Johnson, will have his squad for nearly two weeks before international matches.

Lewis said: "Warren is looking for a level playing field to ensure Wales's preparations are on a par with what is being achieved in the other home nations." Not even on a par. When Gatland heard of Moffett's appointment he replied: "It's a case of welcometo the soap opera."