Waldron sees the gloom gathering

RUGBY UNION COMMENTARY

The England and Scotland players spent the weekend in preparation, mental and physical, strategic and tactical, for their Grand Slam engagement at Twickenham while those of Wales and Ireland were bashing the hell out of each other. Small wonder it is the latter who are going for - sorry, trying to avoid - the wooden spoon in Cardiff.

Sardis Road, a dozen miles up the valley from the Arms Park, is as good a place as any to take the post-Murrayfield pulse of Welsh rugby. Pontypridd beat Neath 18-11 to ensure they will finish at least second, their best in the Heineken's five years. Though level with Cardiff they are nine tries in arrears and accept, with three games remaining, that they are the remote outsiders of the two - though good enough to warrant an invitation to play Northern Transvaal on Wednesday week.

Loftus Versfeld is as different as can be from Sardis Road on Saturday. This was a decent game conducted on an indecent pitch; it demonstrated that things were not as bad as they had seemed in Scotland. Why, with the 1999 World Cup coming home again to Wales, things are even looking up, since the hosts do not have to pre- qualify.

But talk of the pulse of Welsh rugby and you have to ask what, or where, that is. It ought to be thumping away in the national team and it most certainly was when they used to carry most, if not all, before them two decades ago. Then they started losing and, unable to cope, the game here divided itself into east and west, big and small, union and clubs.

The divisiveness has diminished but be in no doubt that there are parochial people around the Welsh clubs who malevolently delight in the travails of Wales, and others, marginally less pernicious, who take a smug, told- you-so satisfaction in bemoaning and belittling their own team.

Of these there have been plenty this season, indeed plenty only last week after the Welsh retreat from Edinburgh. Even Robert Norster, the Wales manager, more or less admits that his side were not as good as winning last season's Five Nations made them seem, because that way he can say neither are they as bad as their results this season have made them seem. He is right on both counts.

Mind you, sometimes it is made to sound like a conspiracy. "We have to get behind the national side and give them as much encouragement as we can," Dennis John, the Pontypridd and Wales A coach, said after the dispatch of Neath. "There are too many people knocking. It's the easiest thing in the world to stand up and criticise."

If Wales could play something like Pontypridd, there would be a lot less standing up. Most obvious is that the Pontypridd effort is collective where Wales's against Scotland was individual to the point of incoherence. Pontypridd are made up of strong characters who know precisely what they are doing; at Murrayfield Wales were not and did not.

Neil Jenkins made breaks against Scotland but they and he were in isolation. Against Neath he made one break of consequence but that brought him a splendid try; otherwise he brilliantly orchestrated a flat-passing game which relied on handling skills under pressure which we still do not know whether Wales possess.

Pontypridd's two tries were contrasting products of their different strengths, Gavin Jones's typical insertion from full-back taking them deep into Neath territory before the forwards battered a path for Paul John, son of the aforementioned Dennis, to score the first. Jenkins arced around the wide outside for the second.

Chris Higgs's try for Neath gave the latter stages a fascination they would not have had if Jenkins had achieved his normal kicking accuracy. Only three from nine to add to the try left him nine points behind Colin Bolderson's club record of 1,407 (set in the Seventies at a rate of five per game to Jenkins's 10).

"That was one of the better games we've seen this season," Ron Waldron, the Neath manager and former Wales coach, said, and he was not being flattering. Waldron and Brian Thomas, the Neath club director, had preferred to see Bath v Gloucester in person the previous Saturday rather than view Wales on television and were more impressed than they would have been if they had stayed home.

"The standard was very good but it wasn't just that," Waldron said. "We know that English clubs have quality teams but it was the whole ambience at Bath that was striking. We have to start playing English clubs again in meaningful competition if we are to get a genuine yardstick for ourselves."

By ambience Waldron means what he perceives to be the affluent trappings of leading English clubs, and privately Neath would admit that they could not compete with the package Bristol put together to persuade Arwel Thomas, their Wales Under-21 outside-half, to agree to join next season.

For now Thomas remains a Neath player and, as his rival Matthew McCarthy, the Cambridge Blue, fell short of his coach's pre-match estimation as a likelier match-winner than Thomas, the Welsh All Blacks will still have use for him in his remaining time at The Gnoll.

Even Waldron cannot argue with young Arwel's choice, because not only does English rugby have more money, it is also better. The message is therefore irredeemably mournful: "Expectations are always high in Wales, partly because the media write up our football as the best in the world. But the truth is at the moment we are fighting for survival."

Pontypridd: Tries Paul John, Jenkins; Conversion Jenkins; Penalties Jenkins 2. Neath: Try Higgs; Penalties McCarthy 2.

Pontypridd: G Jones; D Manley, J Lewis, S Lewis, G Lewis; N Jenkins, Paul John; N Bezani (capt), Phil John, A Metcalfe, G Prosser, M Rowley, K Jones, M Lloyd, R Collins.

Neath: S Bowling; C Higgs, H Woodland, R Jones, J Reynolds; M McCarthy, D Llewellyn; Brian Williams, Barry Williams, M Morgan, Glyn Llewellyn, Gareth Llewellyn (capt), I Boobyer, C Wyatt, C Scott.

Referee: G Simmonds (Cardiff).

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