Last Saturday Brive defeated Neath in the Heineken European Cup. Despite the fact Llanelli beat Leinster and Pontypridd beat Treviso on the same day, and Cardiff (through a drop goal by Jonathan Davies) beat Wasps on Sunday, the overall record of Welsh clubs against outside opposition has not been outstanding.
In the second-order European Conference competition, Newport, Newbridge, Bridgend, Treorchy, Dunvant and Ebbw Vale went down respectively to Agen, Glasgow, Castres, Bristol, Orrell and Gloucester. Only Swansea, who should in justice be competing in the Cup proper, managed a win, against London Irish.
As I predicted at the end of last season, the First Division Courage League clubs or, at any rate, the more prosperous and fashionable of them - Bath, Harlequins and Wasps, not to mention Richmond and Newcastle in the Second Division - are likely to pose a greater threat to Welsh club rugby than rugby league ever did. Indeed, if we look at the position more broadly rather than in a specifically Welsh context, we may conclude that it is now union which threatens league rather than the other way about.
In football, an ambitious young man usually wants to play for Liverpool, Manchester United, Arsenal or Spurs, irrespective of whether he comes from England, Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland or the Republic of Ireland. They are the best clubs, and they happen to be in England. The various national football selectors choose from them without the slightest hesitation or embarrassment. In fact Jack Charlton, when he was assembling the Republic's side, was not only lacking in embarrassment but positively shameless.
I do not expect rugby to reach this stage - or not quite. But inevitably more and more talent is going to be drawn from the poor regions of the British Isles towards England because that is where the money is. In particular, it will be drawn towards the South-East because that is where most of the money is. But is it, I wonder, wholly a coincidence that Harlequins are now the most formidable side in the British Isles; that they are closely followed by Wasps, and that Saracens and Richmond occupy positions which neither they nor anyone else would have dreamt of two seasons ago?
The Scots have always been comfortable taking players for their national side from English clubs: not only from London Scottish but from such clubs as Billy Steele's Bedford or Damien Cronin's Bath.
Indeed, many native Scots would maintain that they have been altogether too comfortable and that to maximise your chances of a Scottish cap you had better sign up for London Scottish, one of the big English clubs or one of the Edinburgh old-boy sides.
The Irish have traditionally been equally comfortable, largely because the problem did not exist. In the last year, however, internationals have been crossing the Irish Sea with the ease and abandon of the Celtic Saints of old, who, it was believed, could walk on the water. They have gone chiefly to London Irish and to Saracens.
There is now a crisis because the national team is selected more from the provinces than from the clubs. Naturally the English clubs, including London Irish, do not want their players going off to Ireland for provincial games or trials and missing training or League matches. The rational solution is for the Irish to hold their national training sessions at Sunbury on Thames.
But it is the Welsh who will find the transition most uncomfortable because we have always been so arrogant about our club rugby. This attitude persists. Great pressure was put on Gareth Llewellyn to stay in Wales and not to move to Harlequins. It seems he has been forgiven because he remains in the Welsh side. Scott Quinnell, of Richmond, is having contract trouble but as soon as it is sorted out it looks as if he will be back too.
His younger brother, Craig, has been playing even better for the same club and should be in the Welsh side as well, either at lock or at No 6. So, above all, should Allan Bateman, also now of Richmond. He should play outside Scott Gibbs of Swansea. In Saturday's encounter with London Scottish, Bateman was undoubtedly man of the match. The presence of the Welsh selectors Geoff Evans and Terry Cobner hinted that the old parochialism might be dying. I hope it does. It will have to if Wales are to field their best side.Reuse content