Cardiff may be the new Welsh champions, but the failure of rugby's politicians to deliver a British league has rendered the richest club in the principality seriously unfashionable. Andrew Lewis, their gifted 26-year-old international prop, yesterday confirmed his departure from the Arms Park after signing a three-year deal with Bath.
Almost simultaneously, last autumn's World Cup captain, Rob Howley, gave the strongest possible hint that he would soon follow his club-mate across the River Severn. Rated the best scrum-half in the world as recently as 1997, Howley has received approaches from Harlequins and Gloucester, but is thought to be more tempted by a move to Leicester, the Allied Dunbar Premiership leaders and title favourites.
Howley was in no mood to shed too much light on his thinking yesterday, but he effectively signalled the end of his Cardiff career by saying: "The club recently came back to me to speak about a new contract but, to be honest, I now feel my future lies over the bridge."
If Howley is true to his word, those leading figures in the Welsh club game who warned of a new exodus of talent in the absence of a cross-border agreement with the English will feel justified in their pessimism. "There is no great secret here," said one influential member of the Cardiff management recently. "The domestic game in Wales is nowhere near strong enough to sustain the wages we're paying. Unless there is a British league, the best players will soon be heading across the bridge, where the match quality is better and the salaries are higher."
Bath are not alone in fishing for the best Red Dragon talent, but they have been getting more bites than most; the most exciting back-row talent in Wales, the 18-year-old No 8 Andrew Lloyd, is already on the Recreation Ground books, as is the outstanding scrum-half prospect Gareth Cooper. Their success in luring Lewis across the great divide to replace Victor Ubogu, who retires at the end of the season, is a setback for Graham Henry, the Wales coach, whose stated policy is to keep his international contingent on home soil.
Another Welshman, the former Saracens coach Mark Evans, has been appointed chief executive at Harlequins. His arrival coincides with the addition of the ex-England scrum-half Richard Hill to the coaching panel at The Stoop.
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