CHRIS KIRWAN SAYS: League changes are now in a real mess

9:10am Thursday 5th July 2012

LYN Jones must have been thinking about the giant task ahead of him before the champagne corks had hit the ground.

London Welsh will play in the Aviva Premiership next season after winning their appeal against the Rugby Football Union’s decision to block their promotion, and deservedly so.

They won the Championship and it’s only right that they swap places with Newcastle, who will no doubt come back stronger from their year one rung down.

But for Welsh it promises to be a challenging season against the big guns and it will be near impossible for them to repeat the heroics of Exeter, who have gone from new boys to being in the play-off mix and securing Heineken Cup rugby in the space of two seasons.

There is barely any preparation time for the Exiles and it means that head coach Jones will be heading into a Premiership season with a squad largely made up of Championship players.

In truth, it’s likely to be grim.

Cheers have turned to gulps… but that is a situation Pontypool hope can be repeated this side of the border.

They are awaiting the decision on whether they will be plying their trade in the Principality Premiership or newly-formed Championship in eight weeks time.

Yes, eight weeks. It is that timeframe that means Pooler face a season of strife whatever their fate because of the farcical situation.

While other clubs are building impressively in both the league they want to be in and the division that they’d rather not, Pontypool have barely got a squad.

Last season was an excellent one by their recent standards, far better than the 12th-place finish suggests.

But the heart hasn’t just been ripped out of their side, all the limbs have gone, leaving them like the Black Knight in Monty Python and the Holy Grail (though the club are proving just as feisty).

You can’t blame the players for heading off once their contracts were up – they need certainty and Pooler were not in a position to offer that.

A large batch have headed down to Newport, a couple to Bedwas, another to Abertillery.

Whatever the High Court judgment of Sir Raymond Jack, it’s an almighty mess.

The Premiership 12 don’t know where they stand, nor do the Championship clubs. Budgets will be affected by the outcome and what will happen in the British and Irish Cup?

All of the Welsh top flight clubs were set to be included in the cross-border competition, what if there are 13?

It has all put a spanner in the works of the Welsh Rugby Union’s bid to narrow the gap between regional rugby and the Premiership.

The revamp will happen whether it’s this season or next and the heat will be on WRU head of rugby Joe Lydon for it to succeed.

At the end-of-season Premier-ship awards night it was frequently stated that the standard of the league is on the up.

That’s partly true; the top flight of Welsh club rugby is certainly more even than a few seasons ago with the likes of Cross Keys, Llandovery and Carmarthen Quins enjoying top-half finishes and now being more than capable of claiming big scalps.

But ask fans of Neath, Newport and Cardiff if their recent sides are up to the standards of previous crops and you will get a swift shake of the head. Even champions Pontypridd didn’t impress me as much as their squad that was led by Nathan Strong.

However, improving the standard is the union’s aim and that’s certainly what their tinkering will do in the league below.

The Championship will be a very good and uncompromising tournament... but that is likely to lead to more mud flinging.

Double Division One East champions Ebbw Vale (who, as it happens, would comfortably qualify for the Premiership were it solely decided on previous league placings), Bargoed and Newbridge showed last season that they are quality sides.

They will no longer face as many mismatches against clubs like plucky Tredegar, who were batting above their average in One East last term. But renewing battles with clubs out west and facing tough games against Carmarthen Athletic, Narberth and Whitland will only serve to fuel their desire for a return to the top table.

Yet the Premiership is scheduled to be ring-fenced for the first few seasons and after that applications for promotion will be considered by the WRU based on “strict criteria”.

Such barriers will lead to more resentment and, who knows, perhaps more situations where the lawyers are laughing.


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