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Harmony In The Valleys ?

Harmony In The Valleys ?

Little more than 24 hours after England had stretched their winning run in Cardiff to an unprecedented four matches, Welsh rugby voted to go down the regional route and abandon 130 years

Little more than 24 hours after England had stretched their winning run in Cardiff to an unprecedented four matches, Welsh rugby voted to go down the regional route and abandon 130 years of club tradition.

All 239 member clubs of the Welsh Rugby Union were yesterday represented at an emergency general meeting which had been called to debate a resolution to field an unspecified number of regional teams in cross-border competitions from next season. They voted by 415 to seven in favour, though it sums up the state of the game in Wales that while a decision has been made the issue is far from resolved.

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The WRU chief executive David Moffett wants four teams to be set up based on four partnerships between the eight existing Premiership clubs. Llanelli and Cardiff, who both want to preserve their separate identities, believe five should be created and are prepared to take the WRU to court in what could be a costly and potentially ruinous battle for the game in Wales.

Yet the delegates arrived buoyed by what was seen as a brave and spirited fight by Wales against England the previous day, though it was not that long ago that a 17-point home defeat to the old enemy would have prompted a week of mourning.

The Welsh used to expect but now they hope. The restored Wales captain Jonathan Humphreys paraded his team around the ground before the kick-off in a bid to galvanise the crowd, but the renowned singing was never more than half-hearted. By the start of the second half, when the game had been lost, the noise was so soft that it was as if the echoes of yesteryear were drifting across the River Taff before being lost under the gathering gallop of England’s chariot.

“We have to look to the future,” Moffett told the delegates yesterday, “otherwise our game will not have one.” That was the theme of the meeting and Llanelli and Cardiff, whose chief executives Stuart Gallacher and Robert Norster both got up to speak, were portrayed as dinosaurs more interested in preserving their status than with turning defeats against England into victories.

Gallacher was unrepentant. “Like Cardiff, we do not believe four teams is a workable solution, five would be much better and we will resist all other plans. If we have to go to court, so be it.”

Moffett’s preferred scheme would see four partnerships: Newport-Ebbw Vale, Neath-Bridgend, Cardiff-Pontypridd and Llanelli-Swansea.
“It is nonsense to put us in with Pontypridd,” said Norster, while the Swansea director Mike James got the loudest cheer of the day when, without naming Llanelli, he called their behaviour contemptible.

Welsh rugby has been built on rivalry and though Llanelli and Cardiff were criticised from the floor for being selfish, the majority of delegates had been mandated out of self-interest. Moffett’s speech contained a damning indictment of the way the WRU had been run financially in the professional era: he not only detailed how much was owed to whom, but he gave a breakdown of how more than #80m had been handed over to clubs since 1995 with no one held to account for how it was spent.

Yet it was only James who criticised the WRU from the floor, saying that if clubs had to feel the pain so should the Union which had not been held to account for the mistakes it had made in the past. Moffett had missed the England match after going down with flu, but he made a reasoned argument for change.

“There are risks we have to consider before going ahead with this,” he said. “There is the threat of legal action as well as contractual difficulties with players and sponsors of clubs. What mattered was the vote today: I will be meeting Llanelli and Cardiff on Monday to try and find a solution.”

“We need one if we are to have a chance of getting back to beating England. The problems we face today could be England’s tomorrow: all in their garden is far from rosy and the likes of Fran Cotton are warning about how Wales are stealing a march on them.”

The Wales coach Steve Hansen was left to celebrate at least one victory over the weekend, and one whose worth still has to be determined.