The best solution for Wales - this is in Wales' interest, not England's - is that there should be an Anglo-Welsh league

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The Independent Online
"How is it," I have often asked friends who live in Wales, "that our international team is so weak compared with England and France, when Welsh club rugby is so strong?"

"When exactly," they tend to reply, "did you last see a club match in your native land?"

It is almost always, depending on the time of year, either the Swalec Cup final at Cardiff, or the touring team's match against Swansea.

"Ah, that explains it then," they say. "You are clearly suffering from the Rugby Special Effect."

So I am. And so are numerous other followers of the game. It is a tribute to the programme's editors that, by skilful selection, they make a match seem more exciting then it really was. It is also a tribute to them that Welsh viewers living in England cannot complain of being short-changed.

Six days ago, however, I did manage to see a Welsh club match, Llanelli v Bridgend at Stradey Park. The facilities are much improved. In place of mud and corrugated iron, there is concrete and plastic. The crowd is as friendly and knowledgeable as ever - even if a few did not seem to realise that lifting is now permitted in the lineout.

The game, which Llanelli won, was played at a tremendous pace. There was none of that tactical, slowing-down, controlled by the half-backs, which was such a feature of Welsh club rugby before the advent of professionalism.

To point that out is no criticism of the young Llanelli outside-half, Craig Warlow, who looked a future international. If Cardiff's Lee Jarvis is as good as everyone says he is, Wales will shortly yet again have a luxury of choice in that position.

And yet, though Llanelli demonstrated their traditional virtues - speed, inventiveness, quickness of wit - they also showed their traditional weakness, a lack of power in the pack. Though seasoned performers, mostly internationals, were on display - Hugh Williams-Jones, Robin McBryde, Mike Voyle and Iwan James - I do not think they could have lived with Bath, Harlequins or Leicester. They might have equalled Wasps in the pack, but I would still take Wasps to win.

I do not think they could successfully take on Richmond; not, at any rate in the forwards. Scott and Craig Quinnell (both former Llanelli players), Ben Clarke, Steve Anderton and Brian Moore, to name but a few, would between them carry greater firepower.

My readers in west Wales may say that I have been watching too much of Richmond and too little of Llanelli. So, perhaps, I have. But the only way to settle these questions is to put them to the test.

Until the formation of the Courage and Heineken leagues in England and Wales, this particular question was regularly put. Or, rather, Llanelli and Richmond maintained a regular fixture until, 20-odd years ago, Richmond cancelled it following the "raking" of Chris Ralston by a Llanelli forward (who in fact happened to be an Englishman). But Llanelli continued to play other English sides such as Harlequins and Wasps, while the other leading clubs maintained similar AAnglo-Welsh fixture lists.

There is now talk of improving standards in Wales through the formation of an eight-club top league. There is talk of doing the same in England. Significantly, however, the balance of the argument in England has slightly shifted. It is not so much that standards will be raised (though, incidentally they will be) as that there will be less overcrowding at the end of the season and fewer tired players. Wales' former strength was that the top clubs played each other as often as four times a season and that they played the English clubs as well, even if less frequently.

The best solution for Wales - this is in Wales' interest, not England's - is that there should be an Anglo-Welsh league consisting, to begin with, of Bath, Cardiff, Harlequins, Leicester, Llanelli, Pontypridd, Swansea and Wasps.

I do not see any reason, however, why either country should be guaranteed a permanent equality of representation. If Newcastle, Richmond and Sale replaced Llanelli, Pontypridd and Swansea, leaving Cardiff as the sole representative, my native land would have to grin and bear it. Welsh rugby would simply have to improve. That, after all, is the whole purpose of the exercise.

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