Welsh fired up for cross-border cup

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Sport, as so often, imitates art this weekend. While Kevin Spacey’s Richard II calls upon the fates to “Call back yesterday, bid time return” at London’s Old Vic, the leading rugby teams of England and Wales match actions to those words in the first round of games in the Powergen Cup.

The reshaping of English rugby union’s former equivalent of the FA Cup as an Anglo-Welsh competition is intended to relaunch cross-border rivalries once intrinsic to the game in both countries. English clubs would expect some of their largest home crowds of the season while the Welsh turned aside from local warfare for the ever popular small-nation pastime of beating up the big guy next door.

Such cross-border clashes fell victim to the introduction of leagues – in England from 1987, Wales three years later. More or less at the same time came a shift in the relative balance of power. Wales lost regular contact just as the English club game acquired extra strength and depth.

Subsequent moves to resume it have come mostly from the west end of the Severn Bridge, while England has felt comfortably self-sufficient amid the growing popularity of its Premiership and the success of its national team. To get this competition going, the Welsh Rugby Union was prepared to jeopardise the Celtic League and was saved only from expulsion by Irish and Scottish realisation the league was not viable without the Welsh regions.

Last night’s Dragons v Leicester kick-off at Newport was televised, as all 12 Anglo-Welsh pool stage clashes will be. The 12 all-English contests, unavoidable in a 16-team competition with 12 English participants, three in each group of four, will not be.

The new cup will be warmly welcomed by those of us whose early rugby memories include seeing Harlequins annually put to Easter Saturday flight at Swansea, and the rather rougher realities of early season trips across the border to Gloucester. Both unions want it to work and a four-year agreement is an insurance against the fate of the last Anglo-Welsh competition which collapsed in mid-season in 1997.

Welsh enthusiasm is not in doubt but it is how England’s clubs respond that will determine the Powergen’s fate. The Rugby Football Union has done all it can – offering a Heineken Cup place to any English winner and grouping their teams regionally so all-English matches are mostly local derbies.

The semi-finals will be a Millennium Stadium double-header, the final at Twickenham – big days out for fans and players alike.

Leicester sent a powerful side to Newport, where the Tigers had won only six times in 65 previous visits dating back to 1890.

Leeds, Powergen Cup holders coached by Llanelli-born Phil Davies, need no encouragement to take tomorrow’s visit from the Scarlets seriously.

But with matches not included in season tickets, crowds may suffer as they did in the domestic Powergen Cup. Gloucester fans have responded slowly to the chance to pay to see Celtic League champions Ospreys – minus the injured Gavin Henson and Shane Williams – and Kingsholm may be only half full today.

Has this revival come too late, relying on ancient rivalries that have lost their resonance? One hopes not, but at least the Powergen Cup has a better chance than Shakespeare’s ill-fated Richard II, who was inspired to call back yesterday by the desertion of his Welsh supporters.

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