Millennium hosts Powergen semis

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In a season apparently defined by absences - imagine how different the Six Nations might have been if Yannick Jauzion, Tom Shanklin and Ryan Jones had been fit - it is only appropriate that attention running up to Saturday’s Powergen Cup semi-final double header at the Millennium Stadium should have focused on the man who won’t be there.

That Dwayne Peel will not be in the Llanelli Scarlets number nine shirt for the second match, against Bath, is not down to injury but the consequence of an imperial ukase issued by acting Wales coach Scott Johnson, fearful of losing him for the two remaining Six Nations rounds.

As well as adding most of the nation west of Swansea to the long list of people in Wales who feel he should not be discouraged from returning to Australia, Johnson’s action points up a central weakness of the regional system. If the regions are to be wholly subordinated to the national team - and it doesn’t come much more subordinate than losing your best player for your most important match of the season so far, pursuing the only trophy still available - then is there any point in supporting them for themselves ?

Still, what’s a flesh wound to complain about after a fortnight in which Welsh rugby has already shot itself between the eyes.

Nor is this good news for the commercial departments of the two unions as they seek a new sponsor to succeed Powergen. If the Welsh, always the more committed partners, are sceptical about the tournament’s importance its prospects seem bleak.

Not so the matches on offer. Two forgotten Englishmen have the chance to shine in the late afternoon with Clive Stuart-Smith, flavour of the month for about three weeks two seasons back, replacing Peel at scrum-half while Bath field the sublime footballing skills of Matt Perry - England’s best back in Clive Woodward’s first four years, until a combination of injuries and the demand for blinding pace from the back sidelined him - at full-back. Amid the Scarlets plethora of Wales backs the sheer quality of centre Regan King, a New Zealander, still stands out.

Llanelli have already done their duty by the new Anglo-Welsh format, preventing the nightmare scenario of an all-English quartet at the Millennium and with less to distract them - Bath have both relegation and a Heineken quarter-final in view - may have the edge.

Whichever qualifies will be second favourite in the Twickenham final, meeting whichever of Wasps and Leicester remains standing after a confrontation whose preliminaries have had even more than the usual edge.

Too bad, although logical for a team that is thriving on Eoin Reddan’s superior service, that Ian McGeechan has left scrum-half Matt Dawson on the bench. English rugby’s two mouthiest individuals going head to head, with every prospect of mutually assured destruction, after Austin Healey’s criticisms of Dawson’s recent England performances, would have been worth the journey by itself.

But there’s still the Dallaglio-Corry match up, the chance to watch Stuart Abbott and (if selected) Ollie Smith and wonder how these guys are in outer darkness while England field twin blunderbusses at centre, and above all else a hegemonic contest that is English rugby’s equivalent of Arsenal v Manchester United, but with the happy difference that this rivalry has been wont to goad its participants into the sublime rather than the poisonous.

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