After an 18-month hiatus due to the pandemic, the Indigo Group Premiership clubs finally have something to look forward to with a new cup competition set to kick-start the season on September 18.
The 12 clubs have been divided into two pools of six – West and East – for the inaugural Indigo Group Premiership Cup.
Llanelli, Aberavon, Bridgend, Carmarthen Quins, Llandovery and Swansea form the West while Merthyr, Ebbw Vale, Pontypridd, Newport, Cardiff and RGC will contest the East.
The initial stage will be on a home and away basis to find the top two sides from each group. The winner from West will then host the runners-up from East in one semi-final while in the other semi-final the winner of East will host the runner-up of West. The date and venue of the final are TBC.
“The key for us has been to get people back playing rugby. A lot of time and effort has gone into ensuring the top end of our club game can return to action in a safe environment,” said WRU head of participation, Geraint John.
“Finally, the players and coaches have something tangible to focus on and we can all now look forward to seeing some exciting derbies which I’m sure will give fans something to shout about at long last.”
Ian Cole-Wilkins, CEO of Indigo Group, said: “We are pleased to be finally welcoming clubs back after a long and challenging 18 months. The new West and East cup competition format to start in September gives local supporters the chance to see the players stir up some long standing rivalries!
“Indigo Group will continue to support clubs with their return to rugby and we look forward to getting to some of the games.”
Jon Jones, chairman of the Indigo Group Premiership clubs and Ebbw Vale, expressed relief that a date has now been set in concrete to get the players back on the pitch and is hoping the derbies will see fans pouring back through the turnstiles.
“Having a cup competition at the beginning of the season is something different, but we’re obviously looking forward to it because we haven’t played for over 18 months by the time we kick off,” he said. “We’re really enthusiastic to get back to playing and that is a message from all the Indigo Group Premiership clubs really.
“It’s really important to have that start date set now – we’ve not even got close to it before so it’s great to know when we’re going to start, we’ve all got friendly fixtures lined up to lead into the competition,” he said.
Jones added the Indigo Group Premiership has had to follow certain protocols before having a start-date confirmed.
“Training has already started for the clubs, but we need a bigger lead-in than some of the community clubs for obvious reasons.
“We have got to get a lot of things in place and it gives us time to do that to make sure the players are ready – it’s been a long time without contact so there are concerns from the medical side of things and that is why it has been managed in the way it has and why we are starting later than the community game.”
With pre-season now fully underway, Aberavon head coach Jason Hyatt is eager to get the new campaign going.
“From our point of view, it’s really important that we get back playing as soon as possible, it’s so important on all fronts. Important for the clubs, important for the supporters and Welsh rugby in general,” he said.
“It is nice to have something concrete to look forward to. They will all be difficult games, traditionally the West sides play a lot of rugby and I enjoyed it the last time it was east and west if I’m honest.
“The East and West is not a new format – we did it a number of years ago and that was the year we reached the final play-off and we played Merthyr in the final.
“We’re very lucky in Aberavon, we’ve got fantastic supporters and everyone is busting a gut to watch rugby again. My son plays for Gowerton, I watched him play against Dunvant so it feels like it is starting to feel like a bit of normality is kicking in now. It was just nice watching a game of rugby so no doubt our supporters will feel exactly the same.”
Hyatt has no doubt the derbies will bring the best out of the players and is encouraging fans who have been devoid of any live sporting action over the past 18 months to go and support their local team.
“Personally, I think the standard is rising all the time. I take my hat off to everyone involved with the Indigo Group Premiership – it doesn’t just fall in our laps at that level. A lot of hard work is involved, and it is a fantastic environment for youngsters to come through and learn,” he said.
Jones added: “This will be a chance to see some live rugby, it’s good for the clubs and good for atmosphere and I think everybody needs that after what we have been through as a society – everybody needs something different to the garden.
“It’s a chance for the Indigo Group Premiership clubs to continue to show what they can do – that is why we would be really pleased to get more people through the gates because I think as people come they will want to come again.”
YOU can forgive yourself if the image below of a snarling Mike Nicholas looks familiar.
The former Warrington Wolves, Great Britain and Wales forward looks ready to go to war again with his old foe Jimmy Thompson, who has clenched his left fist…just in case!
In meetings during their playing days, when Thompson starred with Featherstone Rovers and Bradford Northern, their rivalry was renowned.
Nicholas recalled: “I got sent off three times with Jimmy, one of the toughest forwards in the game and he played in the last Ashes winning Great Britain team against the Aussies in 1970.”
These two hard men of rugby league posed for the fun picture at the recent unveiling of a statue honouring Leeds Rhinos legend John Holmes.
Nicko was accompanied to the event by his ex-Wire and Wales teammate Bobby Wanbon, who posed with ex-Featherstone, Bradford and Great Britain hooker Keith Bridges and gave him a familiar poke on the shoulder.
“The pictures are of our two adversaries in the 1974 Challenge Cup Final at Wembley against Featherstone,” said Nicholas.
“Bobby ended up flattening Keith in a bruising encounter.”