White elephants in the land of wails

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The Independent Online
WHEN a nation's sporting world has collapsed around its ankles like a pair of floppy drawers, when its sons have blown their inheritance of a game in which we were once millionaires, when rivals who once quaked at our name can scarce forbear to snigger and jeer . . . then those responsible have reached the point at which a touch of contrition is in order, when a sequence of rehabilitatory measures that would involve a sharp redistribution of re- sponsibility at the top is the very least they can promise.

However, within 48 hours of presiding over a performance that has dragged the Welsh team so low its predecessors would need a pit-cage to visit it, the Welsh Rugby Union announced an appeal to raise pounds 100m to build a magnificent new superdome to replace the National Stadium at the sacred Arms Park.

We were expecting sackcloth and ashes and they came up with Xanadu. Notwithstanding the fact that it's like the designers of the Titanic having a whip-round among the survivors to build a new ship, it confirms the existence at the WRU of a list of priorities that need urgent revision.

On the one hand we have a nation frightened to turn on the television in case Wales are playing and on the other a governing body who believe that their imperative is not to nourish the improvement of the game at all its levels but the building of a monumental reminder of their reign in office.

This is a manifestation of administrative arrogance that is not unique to Wales. We have the old farts of England to remind us that the symptoms of the disease are widespread but at least the OFs beat a blushing retreat when they realise how contrary they were to public opinion. However, there is a distressing amount of evidence that many of our sports are controlled by those not fit for the task.

Now comes a new danger underlined by the Welsh situation. Their stadium plans were obviously prepared before the World Cup. The fact that they didn't postpone the announcement for a week or two until Welsh blood pressure dropped was not totally down to dimwittedness but to a fear that any delay might prevent them elbowing their way towards the National Lottery trough.

Camelot having just staggered away from it with their pockets full, the race is now on for the mighty sums available from the rest of the profits. The WRU, supported by South Glamorgan County Council, are asking for pounds 50m of lottery money to go towards the cost of the super-stadium project and intend to raise the other pounds 50m from business, local authorities, sports bodies and public appeal.

With that sort of money being milked from the Welsh economy over the next four years there is going to be little available for developing Welsh rugby, and Welsh sport generally, where it desperately needs it - at player level. John Major's small voice was to be heard last week calling for more time and space for school sport. He is right to do so, but one of the many disappointing aspects of the lottery is that the proceeds are directed only towards capital projects.

Sport needs basic facilities, especially in the inner-cities, but it also needs money to develop and nourish interest among the young, both at school and afterwards. The building of great sporting temples should not be undertaken at the expense of those we expect to use them.

This also applies to the arts and not the least ironic part of the WRU's project is that it will be competing for funds with the proposed futuristic Opera House a mile or so away in Cardiff Bay. This is another grandiose scheme dismissed by many as a needless monstrosity. Wales, so long the land of song and rugby, could become the land of white elephants.

The need for a shiny new stadium with a sliding roof - a retractable pitch might come in handier - would be more urgent if Wales did not already possess an arena that many of us feel is superior to most in situation, watchability and atmosphere. It does not have the giant capacity of the new Twickenham but the World Cup final will shortly be staged at Ellis Park which is not much bigger, and if the WRU believe the present Arms Park is not worthy of staging the 1999 version perhaps they shouldn't have applied for it; certainly not if it means diverting attention from their more obvious problems.

The new stadium would be used for many other activities and, of course, the Welsh football side. Alas, there is little evidence that the Welsh FA's prime need is for a larger stadium. Just more than 8,000 turned up to see them lose to Georgia on Wednesday night in a game that deepened the gloom over the Principality.

Vinnie Jones, born-again Welshman and new hero, was sent off for stamping on the groin of Mikhail Kavelashvili. If you had to pick a set of sensitive parts to tread upon, then Kavelashvili's were an excellent choice. Although it was not a stamp in the Roy Keane class of deliberation, Jones had to go and he ought to be reminded that our reasons for making him a Welshman did not include his ability as a ball-breaker. Wales had plenty of those already and, unfortunately, most of them are in charge of our two major games.

In less than two years since getting rid of Terry Yorath, the Welsh FA have completely lost their crowd-drawing power and in insisting on forming a national league have set in motion a chain of events that may stop all their clubs from competing in England, whereupon they will eventually cease to be even a third- class international power.

The parallel decline of Welsh rugby is more preventable, but only through an improvement in the quality of the WRU decisions. To replace Alan Davies and Bob Norster three weeks before the World Cup was a foolish step that could have been justified only if the replacements had brought an improvement. The Alex Evans set-up led Wales into greater ignominy.

A new coaching and organisational structure to create a revitalised Welsh rugby scene, and one in which the players need to be re-imbursed, must be the sole priority of Welsh rugby if they want to be remembered for restoring to their country something more valuable than a modern pyramid.

ENGLAND's women footballers have been striving valiantly in the World Cup in Sweden against opponents who seem to have been better prepared and encouraged, but they're my heroines already.

Fifa are attempting to use this tournament as the starting point for the introduction of time-outs into football. The controlling body of the world game have been determined to impose them for some time, mindful of the opportunities for more commercial breaks that time-outs would create. This is the first championship at which they've been tried and each team is allowed one two-minute break in each half to be taken before a goal- kick, throw-in or a restart following a goal.

However, there is no evidence yet that the girls are taking advantage of their quota. England didn't claim one in either of their first two matches. Good for them. Fifa probably thought they wouldn't resist the chance to stop for a chat every now and then.

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