So far the results of the Heineken European Cup are more or less what one would have expected from the national rankings of the participating clubs' countries. Scotland are at the bottom with Wales just above them, their position pushed up only by the justified ambitions of Llanelli. France have done well, though not quite as well as England. I was about to write that, surprisingly, the Irish provinces are on top.
But really it is not surprising at all. Ulster, it is sometimes forgotten, have actually won the competition. Munster have done consistently well, and would have won the Cup last season if it had not been for Neil Back's illegal but undetected interference with their scrum-half's put-in during the closing minutes. This season the smart money is on Leinster to win the competition for the first time.
This Irish success over the last few years has led several Welsh administrators and not a few observers to the conclusion that Wales should go the same way. There is to be a full-scale meeting on the subject tonight. But I doubt whether we shall be very much the wiser tomorrow morning.
There have been at least two proposals. One was for five provincial teams, brought about through the amalgamation of clubs. The most recent was for four such teams, one of them in the north, where no first-class rugby is, or ever has been, played. This was the idea of David Moffett, the Welsh Rugby Union's most recent Antipodean wise man.
The north is divided – as the south is – between an area which is bilingual and one which is English-speaking only. The latter has Wrexham as its capital and looks eastwards towards Liverpool; the former is centred on Caernarfon and looks inward on itself. It was David Lloyd George, himself from this (then predominantly Welsh-speaking) area, who denounced the people of the industrial south for what he described as their "morbid footballism''. And he was not referring to football but to rugby.
Does Moffett, I wonder, know anything about Welsh history? Or, for that matter, about Welsh geography? The new north Wales rugby province can only be manned by players from the south. How on earth are they to get there, unless they up sticks and take up full-time residence in that notoriously unwelcoming region?
The country's central mountainous landmass makes transport almost as difficult as it has ever been. The Welsh football selectors used to meet in Shrewsbury because it was more convenient. Even today it is easier to travel from Swansea to London that from Swansea to Llandudno. So I trust we shall hear no more of Moffett's manifestly crazed proposal for a north Wales regional side.
But the cry throughout the land, echoing that of Edward VIII as Prince of Wales in a slightly different context is: "Something Must be Done". No one is sure precisely what, but something. The signs are not encouraging, to say the least. At virtually the same time as Moffett was proposing the amalgamation of Swansea, Llanelli and Neath into a west Wales provincial side, Neath were announcing their own amalgamation with Bridgend. Neath are, in practical terms, a wholly-owned subsidiary of the WRU, which – quite rightly, in my opinion – keeps that great club afloat.
Irrespective of whether this merger is a serious proposition or a tactical device designed to fulfil some dark political purpose, as an amalgamation it seems very odd. Neath are quite different from Bridgend, besides being a long way off. Their natural partners are Maesteg and Aberavon. This would leave Swansea and Llanelli either to amalgamate or, as I would prefer, to continue as separate clubs. Everyone is agreed there are too many Welsh first-class clubs or, if you prefer, clubs that are fully professional, paying their players a living wage. The question is whether they are to diminish in number or to amalgamate to form provinces? And, if they are to form provincial sides, are those sides to take over from the clubs completely? Or are they to be wheeled out on ceremonial occasions such as the Heineken Cup, with, say, Swansea and Llanelli continuing to play each other?
The Irish have long experience of provincial sides. They are not artificial entities created for the purposes of rugby. Connacht, Leinster, Munster and Ulster are part of Irish history. Their players retain their club allegiances, too. For instance, Brian O'Driscoll plays for Blackrock College, though how often he turns out for them I have no idea.
I cannot see the same system working in Wales. Certainly it did not work in England. The divisional sides were supposed to provide a means whereby promising players from the less-known clubs could impress themselves on the national selectors. In reality they were a nuisance. England's rise has corresponded to that, in the last decade, of Bath, Leicester and Wasps. The South-west, containing players from Bath, Bristol and Gloucester, used to resemble nothing so much as a sack full of tom cats.
The Welsh provinces, or divisions, would be no different, perhaps even more quarrelsome. Wales should stick to their clubs – but there should be fewer of them.
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