The poor relations

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The Independent Online
We'll soon find out how good, or bad, Welsh club rugby is. The signs haven't been looking very promising but this is the weekend when professional rugby union at club level in the British Isles comes face to face with a few home truths. We at Cardiff certainly realise that when we run out to meet Wasps at Loftus Road this afternoon it will be the most severe test yet of our status in the new game.

I am not forgetting that Cardiff reached the final of the inaugural European Cup last season in which they lost narrowly to the French champions, Toulouse. But the English didn't take part in last season's tournament and their presence now adds a much more formidable look to the fixtures of the next three weeks.

However wide our horizons have become these days, for over a century of rivalry Welsh clubs have been saddled with the need to measure their quality against the English - and for most of that time until serious cross-border games ended several years ago we looked very good in comparison. But recent events have been disheartening.

Not only have we been regularly duffed up in the new Anglo-Welsh League, our clubs have been accused of not caring about the competition. But we've been the victims of a start to the season far tougher than the English clubs have faced and they've been just as guilty of putting out weakened teams.

The trouble is that the English second strings are proving to be better than our second strings. This is hardly surprising when you think how much bigger the English club squads are compared to the Welsh. Neither is it a shock that they are more professional - they've been pros in all but name for a while.

When Harlequins came to Cardiff on Wednesday, there were very few first- teamers to be seen. For various reasons, we also had a large number of first-team players missing.

But whereas we played like a makeshift side, they looked as if they'd been playing together all season and proved a much stronger and more cohesive team. Their whole approach was professional. Twickenham is only about two hours drive from Cardiff but they arrived the night before to stay in a swish city- centre hotel. They were immaculately dressed in formal team clothes and after the match each appeared wearing the same designer casual wear. They were on a bonus of pounds 1,000 a man - about four times more than Cardiff's - and appeared every inch a model of what a modern rugby union team should look like.

We don't look exactly scruffy at Cardiff but whatever we have, they've got more; especially players. They have a squad of 37, ranging from good to great and any one can step into the team with hardly a seam showing. We have a squad of 30, about 10 of whom are still at the potential stage. This comparison could be made between most of the top clubs in England and Wales. I'm sure we'll catch up once our finances get nearer to theirs but at the moment we are the poor relations.

As well as having played more club games, the Welsh have also had two internationals and a few squad sessions. England have had no internationals yet and only two squad sessions - at least, only two they've turned up for.

These are not excuses but an explanation why the Welsh have not yet made a big impression on the club front. But I can promise a very determined Cardiff side at Loftus Road. We've got a lot to prove and today is a good day to start proving it.