Swansea steeled for road ahead

After a summer of transfers and turmoil, the Welsh National League starts today. Robert Cole assesses the new season
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After the false start at Cardiff Arms Park last weekend, when only 19,000 people turned out to see Wales beat the Barbarians, the Welsh rugby season is set for a proper kick-off this afternoon when the more traditional rivals get to grips with each other across the country.

The club scene kicks-off with almost a dozen seasoned international campaigners having gone to the Courage League - among them Gareth and Glyn Llewellyn to Harlequins, Rob Jones to Bristol, Adrian Davies, Andy Moore, Craig and Scott Quinnell to Richmond and Phil Davies to Leeds - and no sponsor to take the place of the backer of the last six seasons, Heineken.

It means the Welsh Rugby Union will have to stump up pounds 987,000 this season to pay for the 20 divisions in their National League structure, but not even that is likely to cover the enormous costs involved in satisfying the new found, or now legal at least, wage bills of the clubs.

The First Division elite are rumoured to have agreed contracts worth around pounds 6m for their players. The question is will they be worth it? The pace, tempo and competitiveness of the game at St Helen's today, where Swansea entertain Cardiff, should give a clear indication of what the fans can expect from the new season.

Swansea look the best outside bet for a trophy this season, having re- recruited the former rugby league players Scott Gibbs, Paul Moriarty and Stuart Evans and brought in Arwel Thomas from Bristol. They have also installed a no-nonsense skipper in the experienced Welsh hooker Garin Jenkins.

He, more than anything, could prove the catalyst of a revival that could yet see Swansea not only capture a domestic trophy, but compete against the best of the French sides in the European Conference.

"We've got a good side on paper, but we must gel this season. There was a lack of steel in our side last season in certain areas," Jenkins said. "I hope that myself and a few other players will be able to lead by example. I want everybody to respond in the same way and this season that means everyone putting their bodies on the line, rather than a chosen few.

"Players have to remember they must put in the effort and hard work before reaping the rewards. We are in a new, professional era and there is individual and collective responsibility."

Cardiff beat Swansea three times last season, including a thumping 59- 0 win at St Helen's, yet despite their flood of leading summer signings, of whom Rob Howley, Leigh Davies and Justin Thomas will be on duty for the first time, they are somewhat reluctant to start.

An outbreak of scrum pox, in addition to a glut of injuries to international back-row men, caused them to ask for a postponement. The game will go ahead, but the question is will Cardiff be able to scrummage?

The burning issue tomorrow, when the reigning National League champions Neath tackle the Swalec Cup holders Pontypridd in the inaugural Champions Challenge match at the Arms Park, is can Neath make do in their second row after losing Gareth and Glyn Llewellyn. The match is a repeat of the Swalec Cup final in May - an event which already seems so distant after a summer of unprecedented unrest.

Club by club guide to the Welsh national league


Heineken League 1995-96: Fifth.

Previous honours: Welsh club champions 1964, 1966, 1970, 1971, 1981. Welsh Cup winners 1979, 1980.

Captain: Ian Greenslade.

Coaches: John Phelps and Gerald Williams.

New players: John Graf (Can), Chris Michulok (Can), Richard Shaw (Swansea), Christian Ferris (Caerphilly), Chris Stephens (Maesteg), Justin Burnell (Neath), Wayne Morris (Pontypool), Kevin Walker (Pontypool), Lloyd Davies (Treorchy), Stuart James (Kenfig Hill), Nick Walne (Cambridge Univ), Dai Joseph (Aberavon), Peter Maitland (unatt).


Heineken League 1995-96: Second Division runners-up.

Previous honours: Mid District Champions 1993. Mid District Cup winners 1986.

Captain: Dave Phillips. Coach: Chris Davey.

New players: Chris Brown (Newport), Dai Duly (Abertillery), Stuart Price (Newbridge), Marcus Lawford (Newbridge), Phil Ager (Llanharran), Adrian Sutton (Tumble), Mike Sherry (North Harbour, NZ), Mark Smith (Treorchy), Stuart Price (Newbridge), Steffan Jenkins (Llanharan), Gareth Hurley (Pencoed), David Harris (Cross Keys), Jamie Payne (Treorchy), Richard Gregory (Maesteg), Brett Davey (Maesteg).


Heineken League 1995-96: Second.

Previous honours: Welsh club champions 1948, 1949, 1953, 1955, 1958, 1982. Welsh Cup winners 1981, 1982, 1984, 1986, 1987, 1994. Heineken League champions: 1995.

Captain: Hemi Taylor. Coach: Terry Holmes.

New players: Justin Thomas (Llanelli), Gwyn Jones (Llanelli), Leigh Davies (Neath), Robert Howley (Bridgend), David Young (Salford RLC), Lee Jarvis (Pontypridd), Jason Hewlett (Newport), Lee Jones (NZ).


Heineken League 1995-96: Second Division champions.

Previous honours: West Wales champions 1990.

Captain: Dean Evans. Coach: Malcolm Jones.

New players: Jonathan Dodd (CIHE), Chris Arnold (Newport), Emyr Harris (Pontyberem), Greg Ellison (Swansea Univ), Mark Harris (Ystradgynlais), Jason Gibbs (Felinfoel), Paul Thorburn (Neath), Nigel Spender (Bridgend).


Heineken League 1995-96: Seventh.

Previous honours: Welsh club champions: 1952, 1954, 1957, 1960.

Captain: Kingsley Jones. Coach: Nigel Way.

New players: Paul Pook (Newbridge), Spencer Clease (Blaina), Mike Wilson (Merthyr), Gareth Williams (Merthyr), Lyndon Lewis (Pontypridd), Craig Burnell (Pontypridd), Sean Marshall (Newbridge), Mark Ball (Tredegar), Lee Banks (Blaenau Gwent).


Heineken League 1995-96: Fourth.

Previous honours: Welsh club champions 1968, 1974, 1977, 1991. Welsh Cup winners 1973, 1974, 1975, 1976, 1985, 1988, 1991, 1992, 1993. Heineken League champions 1993.

Captain: Ieuan Evans.

Coaches: Gareth Jenkins and Geraint John.

New players: Andrew Gibbs (Newbridge), Iwan Jones (Newbridge), Mike Voyle (Newport), Steve Ford (Bridgend), Sean Gale (Bridgend), Vernon Cooper (Ystradgynlais), Tristan Davies (Ystradgynlais), Stephen Jones (Carmarthen), Aled Thomas (Tumble), Ian Davies (Treorchy).


Heineken League 1995-96: Champions.

Previous honours: Welsh club champions 1947, 1967, 1987. Welsh Cup winners 1972, 1989, 1990. Heineken League champions 1991, 1996.

Captain: John Davies.

Coaches: Lyn Jones and Daryll Jones.

New players: Gareth Taylor (Newbridge), Marcus Thomas (Swansea), Barry Grabham (Aberavon), Paul Matthews (Aberavon), Steve Martin (CIHE), Daniel Hawkins (Swansea), David Hawkins (unattached), Mark Williams (Abertillery), Darren Morris (Maesteg), Steve Gardner (CIHE), Neil Watkins (CIHE), Gareth Newman (Neath Coll), Lloyd Griffiths (Neath Coll).


Heineken League 1995-96: Ninth.

Previous honours: Welsh club champions 1965.

Captain: Nigel Meek. Coach: Roger Powell.

New players: Roger Bidgood (Caerphilly), Robert Sadler (Newport), Jason Williams (Pontypool), Kevin Williams (Merthyr), Mark Yendle (Newport), Matthew Taylor (Pontypool), Neil Edwards (Abercynon), Leighton Winder (Abercynon), Damion Cooper (Abertillery), Ian Perriment (South Wales RLC), Joe Powell (Abertillery).


Heineken League 1995-96: Eighth.

Previous honours: Welsh club champions 1951, 1956, 1962, 1969. Welsh Cup winners 1977.

Captain: Richard Goodey. Coach: Steve Jones.

New players: James Alvis (Pontypridd), Nicky Lloyd (Pontypridd), Vince Davies (Cardiff), Dafydd Evans (Newbridge), Lee Jones (Newbridge), Chris Crane (Newbridge), Shaun Connor (Abertillery), Bruce Corlett (Abertillery), Lindsay Harvey (Pontypridd), Mark Cox (SW Police), John Bowen (L Welsh), Steve Reid (Newbridge), Jan Machacek (Cz Rep), Brian Davies (Saracens).


Heineken League 1995-96: Third.

Previous honours: Welsh club champions 1963, 1976, 1978, 1979. Welsh Cup winners 1996.

Captain: Neil Jenkins.

Coaches: Dennis John and Lyn Howell.

New players: Ioan Jones (Caerphilly), Jonathan Evans (CIHE), Nathan Jones (Bridgend), Kevin Morgan (Pontypridd Youth), Gareth Wyatt (Pontypridd Youth).


Heineken League 1995-96: Sixth.

Previous honours: Welsh club champions 1980, 1983. Welsh Cup winners 1978, 1995. Heineken League champions 1992, 1994 .

Captain: Garin Jenkins. Coach: Mike Ruddock.

New players: Scott Gibbs (St Helens RLC), Arwel Thomas (Bristol), Stuart Evans (Resolven), Danzi Niblo (Dunvant), Robbie Jones (Bridgend), Luc Evans (Cardiff Medicals), Richard Rees (Newport), Adam Palfrey (Newport), Chris McDonald (Narberth), Paul Moriarty (South Wales RLC), Andy Booth (Cardiff).


Heineken League 1995-96: 10th.

Previous honours: Heineken League Third Division champions 1993. Second Division champions 1994.

Captain: Gavin Owen.

Coaches: Clive Jones and Chris Jones.

New players: Owain Lloyd (Llanelli), Andrew Dibble (Pontypool), Kevin Matthews (Cardiff), Huw Daniels (Ystradgynlais), Jason Cicero (Abertillery), Rowland Phillips (Workington), Darren Bool (CIHE), Matthew Codd (Bonymaen), Kevin Ellis (unattached), Andrew Williams (Pontypridd), Jason Lownes (St Joseph's), Alan Roberts (Ystrad), Glen John (Ystrad), Justin Hopkins (Ystragynlais).