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RBS 6 Nations: Wales rocked by lack of harmony

By Niall Crozier

One cannot but wonder about the current state of affairs within the Welsh camp as they prepare for a potentially championship-defining joust against Ireland at the Aviva Stadium on Saturday afternoon (2.30pm).

In view of the ongoing turmoil in Welsh rugby, just how focused can the defending champions be at this point?

Consider: the four regions – Cardiff Blues, Newport Gwent Dragons, Ospreys and Scarlets – are in open revolt against the Welsh Union. Right now, those regions do not know where or under whose governance they will be playing next season.

They are threatening to jump ship and throw in their lot with England's Aviva Premiership big guns, albeit that another season of Heineken Cup mediocrity suggests that those clubs to which they appear hell-bent on binding themselves maybe are not quite as big as they keep trying to persuade the rest of us is the case.

Meanwhile, Welsh captain Sam Warburton has signed a central contract, thereby wedding himself to the Union. As a result, last summer's Lions skipper is another who does not know whose colours he will be wearing in 2014-15.

He would like to remain with Cardiff, but the WRU may have different plans depending on what else happens and where the Blues end up.

Ah well, whilst currently out of step with his fellow-internationals by virtue of having accepted the WRU's package, at least Warburton and the regions are treading the same track in terms of not knowing what is coming next.

But quite how Warburton's Welsh team-mates view him at this juncture is anyone's guess. In getting the national captain to sign up on their terms, the WRU's hope was that others would follow his example.

At this stage, however, that has not happened; the Cardiff Blues (though watch this space) back row forward finds himself in not-so-splendid isolation, the mood among some of those he was to have led seemingly being that he has looked after number one by agreeing to a package better than that on offer to others.

Tellingly, Alun-Wyn Jones of Ospreys fame declined a similar offer. Thus it is that the man who captained last summer's Lions, has accepted something Jones – who led the cream of Britain and Ireland in the third Test which Warburton missed through injury – rejected out of hand.

Now which of that pair of heavyweights holds sway in the dressing room?

Meanwhile, Leigh Halfpenny has signed for Toulon and, as a result, will be playing his football in France next season. So, too, will Ian Evans, currently suspended for 12 weeks following an act of brutality against Leinster's Mike McCarthy. Like Halfpenny, Evans is Toulon-bound.

And Jonathan Davies will be an ASM Auvergne Clermont player once the curtain comes down on this season.

Already playing their trade across the Channel, of course, are Mike Philips, Jamie Roberts, Dan Lydiate, Luke Charteris, Lee Byrne and James Hook, though Byrne is set to fly in the face of convention by joining the NG Dragons from Clermont come summer.

Homeward-bound? That Simon and Garfunkel classic must be the WRU's favourite piece of music right now. But despite the reputation the Welsh enjoy as singers, there aren't too many big-name players on the same song-sheet as those charged with administering rugby football in the Principality.

With all of that as an unseemly background, George North is playing in England for Northampton Saints, while prop Paul James joined Bath.

So just how messy has all of this become at a practical level? Well, James missed out on the Wales v Australia Test because it was played on November 30. With that being outside the autumn internationals' window, Bath exercised their right by recalling their player.

Club versus country? Yip – and the club in question won against a different country with no power of veto whatsoever. Dangerous, dangerous precedent.

Conversely, North played for his country in that match against the Wallabies and, because he did, Northampton were fined £60,000 by an Aviva Premiership disciplinary panel for permitting a contracted player, who was fit, to be absent. How willing will they be to release him in similar circumstances at some future date? Not very.

Recently, Welsh coach Warren Gatland said: "Our ideal scenario is for them to play here in Wales. But if they're going to go anywhere I'd prefer them to go to France than across the (Severn) Bridge where the PRL impose IRB regulation nine, which does hinder some of the players.

"But it's a sign of the times and potentially it's only going to get worse."

How happy a camp can that be?

In contrast, just before the championship got under way, Ireland were able to announce that Paul O'Connell, Sean O'Brien and Jamie Heaslip had enlisted for further spells.

We might not get things right all the time, but the IRFU and the Irish players are in a whole lot better place than their Welsh counterparts going into this weekend's showdown.

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