Wales impose ban on Ebbw Vale and Newport men

The Welsh Rugby Union yesterday insisted that there was not the remotest possibility that anyone previously or at present involved with Ebbw Vale or Newport, the clubs that formed the nucleus of the Gwent Dragons, would ever be allowed to run any South-East Wales regional team in the future.

On the field, Gwent Dragons hold a lofty position in the Celtic League, but off it they are in a mess and in administration. Should they go into liquidation and out of existence the WRU would want a replacement team.

The WRU made it clear that such a team would have to be run by someone who had not had anything to do with Ebbw Vale or Newport, which would rule out Tony Brown, the millionaire former owner of Newport.

Across the Severn, England's clubs take a break from the Premiership and turn their attention to the sixth round of the Powergen Cup, and for Gloucester and London Irish, who meet at Kingsholm this afternoon, selection has proved an unwelcome headache.

With 10 front-line players missing through World Cup calls or injury, Nigel Melville, Gloucester's director of rugby, has been forced to turn to the academy. Two flankers, James Merriman, 19, and Luke Narraway, 20, have consequently been called up for first-team duty. Merriman makes his first competitive start in a back row that has lost the services of Andy Hazell (suspension), Junior Paramore (broken arm) and James Forrester (broken nose), while Narraway is on the bench.

The London Irish captain, Ryan Strudwick, has a back strain, and their prop Rob Hardwick broke a thumb in training on Wednesday. Hardwick is replaced at tight head by Pierre Durant and Strudwick by the talented Nick Kennedy in the second row, with Neal Hatley taking over as captain.

Bath, 10-times winners of the knock-out competition in its various guises, entertain Northampton at the Recreation Ground. The Zurich Premiership leaders have named the Scotland winger Simon Danielli on the bench, but their other World Cup returnee, the Ireland centre Kevin Maggs, has an ankle injury so the New Zealand Under-21 international Robbie Kydd comes into the centre for the injured Robbie Fleck.

Northampton, whose fly-half, Shane Drahm, has had a two-week ban commuted to a caution, select from a near full-strength squad. Johnny Howard starts at scrum-half in place of Mark Robinson, who has had his 21-day suspension reduced to two weeks.

The Premiership's second-placed club, Harlequins, travel to Headingley for the second time in a fortnight and will be full of confidence having beaten Leeds on that previous visit and backing themselves to reach the quarter-finals for a record 23rd time -a feat that Leicester will also be trying to match.

The Harlequins director of rugby, Mark Evans, is not allowing his team to become complacent. "Leeds lost three in a row and there is a backlash factor. They will be a bit low on confidence, but at the same time they will be very highly motivated. They'll be telling themselves that we're not that great and that they can turn us over."

The good news for the Tykes is that the Argentinian Diego Albanese makes his first appearance of the season after returning from the World Cup, while the Italy back-rower Aaron Persico makes his full debut after two appearances as a replacement. Gordon Ross returns after World Cup duty with Scotland and is on the bench.

Leicester defend an impressive Cup record at Welford Road when they take on Sale. In their previous 31 years in the competition, the Tigers have lost on their own turf just four times in 37 home ties.

They are delaying their team announcement until 2pm today but Austin Healey, who flew out to Australia on Sunday as stand-by cover for England only to return home 33 hours after arriving Down Under, is expected to be at full-back in a team likely to show few, if any, changes from last weekend.

Sale have already beaten Tigers at Welford Road in the Premiership this season and they have named the same side which beat Leeds last weekend - Scotland's Bryan Redpath and Jason White being given time to recover from their World Cup exertions.

The Australian Stuart Pinkerton has extended his stay at Sale for at least another six games to provide cover until Peter Anglesea and Phil Davies are fully fit again.

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