The Welsh Rugby Union has fired the initial shots in what promises to be a ferocious political battle with its senior professional clubs by proposing a four-team provincial structure for next season's Celtic League and Heineken Cup tournaments – with one of the new sides based in Wrexham, miles away from the traditional heartland of the game in the Principality. The current nine-team élite league, featuring great sides such as Llanelli and Cardiff, would become a 12-club competition under the plan, but be downgraded to semi-professional status.
These latest proposals, tabled by the WRU director of rugby Terry Cobner and supported by the newly-appointed chief executive David Moffett, will provoke uproar from Stradey Park in the west to Eugene Cross Park in the valleys. Cobner envisages a system under which Llanelli, Swansea and Neath will feed their leading players into a provincial outfit based at Stradey; Cardiff, Bridgend and Pontypridd will do likewise at the Arms Park; and Newport, Ebbw Vale and Caerphilly will join forces at Rodney Parade. There has been no public explanation of how the Wrexham-based side would be selected.
Cobner's plan, put to the top-flight clubs yesterday, was unveiled 48 hours after Neath and Bridgend, sworn political enemies only six months ago, staged a pre-emptive strike by announcing merger plans for the 2003-04 campaign. Their decision provoked sharp criticism from two of the leading Welsh clubs, Llanelli and Pontypridd.
Moffett, recruited on a £200,000 a year salary after resigning from Sport England and charged with overseeing a streamlining of the professional game in Wales, had already spoken of his determination to restore financial credibility by cutting back on the numbers of players making a full-time living from the sport. A former chief executive of the New Zealand Rugby Football Union, he sided with his countryman, the Welsh national coach Steve Hansen, in suggesting the imposition of a provincial structure for the two major cross-border tournaments in which club sides currently participate.
While the Llanellis and Cardiffs are certain to rage against provincial rugby – and with good reason, given their strong support base and long tradition of success against all-comers – Moffett is renowned for his determination to drive through controversial policies. The WRU, generally considered to be the most stagnant of bodies with its obsolete committee structure and small-town rivalries, have now positioned themselves at the radical end of rugby spectrum. The fall-out will be considerable.
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