Wales in gloom as stars follow trail to the east

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On the face of it, the English are in the process of delivering a double blow to Wales - first they isolate the Welsh clubs by dithering over a British League and then they swoop to tempt away their stars.

Saracens' signing of the French ace Thomas Castaignÿde stole most of the headlines last week but there was far more meaningful activity across the Severn Bridge. Bath announced the capture of the Cardiff prop Andrew Lewis and are said also to have Swansea's Ben Evans as a target. Cardiff are fighting to keep Lewis but also face the threat of losing their scrum-half Robert Howley, the centre Leigh Davies and the winger Liam Botham to other cross-border predators.

All this and we are still a few weeks short of finishing the present season and most clubs haven't yet started their shopping for the next. Welsh clubs haven't been as vulnerable as this since the height of the rugby league poaching back in the old days, and this time the players don't have anything like such a difficult decision to make.

If there's a miracle and a British League involving the top Welsh clubs is formed after all, the loss may be minimised, but the signsare that the English will stay ontheir own and, if they do, theywill not have far to look for willing reinforcements.

I am not accusing them of plotting it this way because I believe that most of the English clubs would welcome the extra boost the presence of the best of the Welsh would give to the Allied Dunbar League. In fact, if you had to blame anyone for the situation, it would be the Welsh Rugby Union for not embracing more eagerly the British League idea when it was first suggested.

Cardiff and Swansea had to defy the WRU and play in England as rebels two years ago, which was a move that did a lot to raise Welsh standards. The Welsh-Scottish league has been a brave attempt to maintain those standards and I am backing Llanelli to prove themselves the top team in Britain if not in Europe over the next few weeks.

But, in the long run, the strength in depth lies with the English clubs, who have much more money to spend. They are each to receive £1.8m from their league, while the Welsh clubs will be lucky to get £500,000. Faced with the offer of bigger wage packets, a higher level of rugby and a chance of high honours it will be very difficult for the Welsh players to resist the calls from England.

The Welsh national coach, Graham Henry, desperately wants the bulk of his squad to play in Wales but they are professionals and will want to seek the best all-round deal. No doubt, they figure that if they are playing well they will still get picked for international duty wherever they are playing.

It is obviously a very sad situation, but it is far from a disaster. The departing stars will leave opportunities for younger players. The big plus point of this season's Six Nations was the launching of Shane and Rhys Williams on to the international scene. There are more where they came from.

Ellery Hanley's recruitment by Bristol to sort out their defence was the most fascinating move of the week. It is an astute step by ambitious Bristol, who would have been encouraged by the success that Phil Larder has achieved with the England team. Larder, the former Great Britain league coach, has been doing a great job incorporating league know-how into hiswork with the England squad, plus advising a few clubs.

He was helped by the fact that he has played a bit of rugby union and knows much about the game. Hanley doesn't have the same depth of knowledge about the finer points of union and will have to do some quick learning. Not that I question his suitability for the task. He is one of the greatest rugby players ever to have starred in either code. I played with him and I've been coached by him so I've had first-hand experience of his incredible rugby brain. He is the most single-minded person I've ever met and it was obvious from his success with St Helens last season that he can transmit his steely style to other players.

Bristol's players are likely to be fitter and more focused than they have ever been and they could have no better tutor on defensive organisation. Union players generally have a great deal to learn about communication in defence and I can promise them that their tackling techniques, and their turnover count, will improve out of sight.

Hanley might take a while to work out what's happening in the rucks and mauls but if he can harmonise his work with the rest of Bob Dwyer's coaching team, next season is already worth looking forward to.

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