Welsh players look to union in face of uncertain future
Wednesday 01 January 2003
It may be a case of shutting the stable door after the horse has bolted – or, in rugby terms, shoring up the blind-side after the scrum-half has disappeared into the distance – but the good and honest players of Wales are finally thinking of getting themselves unionised.
Deeply concerned that the best part of 200 full-time jobs could disappear by the start of next season, club professionals from Llanelli in the west to Newport in the east plan to band together over the next fortnight and launch an association along the lines of the one that has been operating in England for several years.
One brief meeting has already been held, prompted by Welsh Rugby Union proposals to cut the number of élite sides from nine to four along provincial lines. Most of those nine have the best part of 40 players on their books – all of them nominated squads of between 32 and 34 players for this season's European tournaments – and as a four-team format would restrict full-time contracts to a maximum of 140 and probably less, the urgency of the situation could hardly be greater.
There has been no formal contact between the Welsh players and the Professional Rugby Players' Association in England, but Damian Hopley, the chief executive of the PRA, acknowledged yesterday that he had "heard rumblings of activity" on the far side of the Severn. Another pressure group, the European Clubs' Association, has declared its opposition to any move towards a provincial set-up in Wales and is prepared to stand alongside the great clubs of the principality – Llanelli, Cardiff and the rest – as they fight for their professional futures.
If David Moffett, the new chief executive of the WRU, gets his way – and he is nobody's idea of a political pushover – Wales will go provincial in September. The Celtic League will be a 10-team competition, with the newly-constituted Welsh quartet joined by three sides each from Ireland and Scotland. The same teams will compete in the Heineken Cup. It is not yet clear how this would affect the second-tier Parker Pen competition, which could become unviable in the absence of Welsh participants.
The contractual complications of such a move are considerable. Newport, for example, have just recruited Percy Montgomery, the former Springbok back, on big money; John Connolly, the respected Australian coach, is in the first year of a two-year deal with Swansea; half the Canadian pack plays club rugby in Wales (Canada, disadvantaged enough, would be seriouslyweakened if their internationals were unable to find employment in Europe) and a dozen Tongan Test players also earn livings in and around the valleys. None would find a home in a provincial set-up designed to encourage Welsh talent alone.
The WRU, so spectacularly broke that it is considering withdrawing from the forthcoming Six Nations A tournament, could expect to be submerged by compensation claims.
In the English Premiership, the Leeds scrum-half Scott Benton is hoping to be named in Phil Davies' 22-man squad for Friday night's match with Bath at Headingley. Benton missed the start of the season with a back injury and then fractured an ankle after eight minutes of his comeback appearance against the Italian club Petrarca Padova.
Derek Hegarty and Alan Dickens have operated at the base of the Leeds pack in Benton's absence, but the Yorkshiremen have missed the former Gloucester half-back's scoring ability, reflected by his strike rate of 30 tries in 76 appearances.
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