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Welsh clubs left to assess the damage after agreeing uneasy ceasefire

AT THE end of the 20th century Scotland seemed to have stolen the Welsh crown as the kings of civil war and self-destruction, and were going to hang on to it.

The Dragons will be relieved to be back on the pitch with the likes of Glasgow Warriors after a frustrating summer. Picture: SNS/SRU
The Dragons will be relieved to be back on the pitch with the likes of Glasgow Warriors after a frustrating summer. Picture: SNS/SRU

The Welsh have come roaring back to form, however, and reclaimed their title with a spectacular display of in-fighting which put the Scottish quarrels to shame.

Only a week ago, it was not even certain that Wales would have teams to enter in this season's Guinness PRO12. In they end, the warring factions stitched together a last-minute armistice of sorts. The fact that it was pretty much the same deal as that which was on the table 18 months ago tells you all you need to know about the level of dislike and distrust that exists between the Welsh Rugby Union, the governing body, and Regional Rugby Wales, which represents the four teams in the PRO12.

Nobody should have been surprised. In-fighting has been part of the Welsh rugby psyche since long before professionalism added money to the equation. Bring in a spot of dosh and the only real surprise was that for almost a decade it all looked so peaceful; the regions were formed in 2003 as the league as we know it was born.

It couldn't last. And it didn't.

In the last 18 months Welsh rugby has torn itself apart. The regions threw their lot in with the English Premiership over European rugby - with the likes of Bristol, Bath, Gloucester and Worcester only just over the border, they see the English as natural opposition - and began a major spat with their union.

While money was at the heart of it, central contracts, foreign players and a host of niggly details all became sticking points. As a result of the uncertainty that created, each Welsh club has struggled to keep and attract players.

Look at Leigh Halfpenny. If central contracts had been in place six months ago, the Wales and Lions full-back would almost certainly have stayed at Cardiff and cost the club a lot less than they paid him last season. Instead he is off to big-spending Toulon.

On the other hand, Cardiff, with a new coach and high hopes for Gareth Anscombe, their high-profile Kiwi signing with a Welsh mother, have perhaps weathered the storm best. "All businesses have challenges, but maybe coming in as late as I have means I am not tainted by it," said Mark Hammett, their new head coach.

Cardiff did manage to pull off the signing coup of the close season by pinching Adam Jones, the Wales tighthead prop, from under the noses of the Ospreys. With Jarrad Hoeata, the All Blacks lock, also coming over, and a few other signings, they seem to have strengthened the pack, while Anscombe looks a ready-made replacement for Halfpenny.

"For the players, the agreement doesn't change what we do," said Matthew Rees, the club captain. "It was all out of our control, all we can do is our jobs to the best of our ability. We are in a stronger position as a club than last season, not just in terms of recruitment but in terms of experience."

Across at the Scarlets, they also seem to have come through having sustained less damage than others. Losing Jonathan Davies is a blow but Regan King is a classy replacement who is already familiar with the club after a previous spell there. Like the Blues, Scarlets have had coaching issues over the summer, with Wayne Pivac announced as the new man in charge only three weeks ago.

The Dragons seem eternally to be trying to rebuild and Lyn Jones, the director of rugby, is trying to find some established players to go with the bunch of youngsters he is trying to develop. It was frustrating that the political uncertainty meant Luke Charteris, who the club tried to line up, decided to stay in France, but with so few recognised talents coming in, there was not a lot of competition for the existing players.

"They just put a dossier on my desk and I have to deal with any fallout," said Jones. "I have been able to recruit only because I have ignored what was going on; I have been in the game a long time and seen it all happening before."

The biggest victims would appear to be the Ospreys. Their Galacticos days are behind them and even Steve Tandy, their head coach, admitted it is looking like a tough season.

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