WRU Premiership: All change for Welsh rugby's kick-off

Merthyr
Merthyr celebrate winning the 2016-17 WRU Premiership title

The rugby season kicks-off in Wales on Saturday, 26 August when the second-tier Welsh Premiership gets underway.

The league has been revamped with teams split into east and west divisions for the first half of the season.

Champions Merthyr kick-off at home to Cross Keys in the East division while Aberavon, the team they beat in the play-off last season, open their West Division bid by hosting Bridgend.

So what can fans expect in a league that contains some of the biggest names in the history of the club game?

HOW THE LEAGUE IS SPLIT
EASTWEST
Bargoed, Bedwas, Cardiff, Cross Keys, Ebbw Vale, Merthyr, Newport, Pontypridd.Aberavon, Bridgend, Carmarthen Quins, Llandovery, Llanelli, Neath, RGC 1404, Swansea.

The teams in each division will play each other home and away before the whole league comes together with the teams awarded points according to their position in the divisions - eight points for first place, one point for last place.

They will then play each other once to determine the outcome of the title, with no play-offs at the end of the season.

Why the change?

"More games and more derbies," is Welsh Rugby Union head of performance Geraint John's concise summary.

"We spoke to the clubs and they felt last season there was a period after Christmas when there were not enough games.

"We want to encourage these clubs to be the hotbed of their communities. They want to watch their teams play."

Local rivalries

Nigel Davies, newly-appointed chief executive of champions Merthyr, believes the Premiership can encourage the kind of local, parochial rivalries which has been diluted in the top-level regional matches.

Davies played for Llanelli and Wales and as a coach was in charge of the national side in 2007.

"In Wales you start of wanting to beat the people next door, then the next street, then the next site (estate) and ultimately the next town," he said.

"We need to make it more competitive league with strong identities. We have to take that mantle on and drive it on."

Welsh Premiership captains
The 16 captains of the Welsh Premiership teams

Who's involved?

One level below the Pro14 regions, the league includes some of rugby's most famous clubs.

Newport and Cardiff, who play on the new Rodney Parade pitch on the opening weekend, first faced each other in 1876.

Both clubs can boast historical wins over New Zealand, South Africa and Australia.

Ex-Wales internationals Dale McIntosh and Lee Jarvis (Merthyr), Phil Davies (Llanelli), Gareth Llewellyn (Neath), Mark Jones (RGC 1404) and Morgan Stoddard (Cross Keys) are all either coaches or assistant coaches.

Success or development?

A perennial question is how the clubs balance developing players for the top level without affecting the ambitions of the clubs.

"For me, in the future the Premiership teams as well as having the strong identities of the towns they come from - because that's really what attracts our supporters - it's the conduit really from the amateur game to the professional," said Davies.

"Being a strong service centre that can deliver that, engage with those youngsters, get them coming through the system with a high level of coaching and trying to work with that transition to the professional game and having the facilities and resources to do that is essential.

"I think for Merthyr's point of view and the Premiership in general, they could play a very important part of the development of the game in Wales."

Opening fixtures

Saturday, 26 August

East: Bargoed v Ebbw Vale, Merthyr v Cross Keys, Pontypridd v Bedwas.

West: Aberavon v Bridgend, Llandovery v RGC 1404, Llanelli v Carmarthen Quins, Neath v Swansea.

Sunday, 27 August

East: Newport v Cardiff

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