In a sparkling new state-of-the-art stadium in rugby-mad Wales, the world championship of rugby football began yesterday, with all the major national teams participating--you know, famous rugby powers such as Uruguay, Japan, Tonga, Samoa, Spain and Italy.

Actually, the world's leading rugby nations--four from the British Isles (England, Scotland, Wales, Ireland) plus Australia, New Zealand and South Africa--are the favorites to emerge on top from the month-long, round-robin competition. But with the field of competing countries expanded to 20 for the fourth quadrennial World Cup, a raft of relative newcomers is scrumming along as well.

There is even a team from the United States, known as the U.S. Eagles. But since this is one of the rare sports where the U.S. players are amateurs, while nearly everybody else is a professional, the Eagles are unlikely to soar. When the United States played a warm-up match against England in August, the final score was a humbling 106-8, with the Americans on the losing end.

The U.S. team faces a tough Ireland squad today in Dublin. The Eagles are so undervalued that major London betting houses wouldn't even write odds on them.


V. Williams Ousts Hingis

Defending champion Venus Williams, two points away from defeat, rallied to beat top-ranked Martina Hingis, 6-2, 6-7 (8-6), 9-7, to reach the final of the $6.7 million Grand Slam Cup in Munich and avenge a semifinal loss to Hingis at the U.S. Open three weeks ago.

"I don't believe in revenge," Williams said. "No matter what happened, I still lost at the U.S. Open."

In Sunday's final Williams will face her younger sister Serena, the U.S. Open champion. Serena Williams defeated Lindsay Davenport in the second women's semifinal, 6-3, 6-4--in another repeat of the U.S. Open.

In men's quarterfinal action, Greg Rusedski fired 19 aces in beating Yevgeny Kafelnikov, the Australian Open champion, 7-5, 7-6 (8-6), and Ukraine's Andrei Medvedev defeated Richard Krajicek of the Netherlands, 7-6 (7-5), 6-4.


Hall of Fame Honors

Former defensemen Rod Langway (Capitals) and Gordie Roberts and former college coach Sid Watson are the 1999 inductees for the U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame. . . . Center Keith Primeau rejected the latest contract offer from the Hurricanes, meaning that last season's leading scorer will miss the team's season opener today at Boston. The Hurricanes also stripped the all-star of his captain's title. . . . Flyers center Rod Brind'Amour was placed on injured reserve, ending the longest consecutive-games streak in the NHL at 484.


WNBA's Woolridge Fired

The Los Angeles Sparks fired Coach Orlando Woolridge, citing philosophical differences.

Woolridge led the Sparks to the team's best finish in their three-year history and a playoff berth with a 20-12 record. They lost to the WNBA champion Houston Comets in the Western Conference final.

BoxingChavez Fights On After taking a beating a year ago from Oscar De La Hoya, Julio Cesar Chavez vowed to fight only once more before finally retiring.

Now he has a new plan, and retirement comes with a new set of conditions.

"My goal is to retire as champion. I want the title," Chavez said. "I want to retire with dignity and I think I deserve that."

Chavez returns to the ring tonight against Willy Wise, a loser of three straight fights, to continue a pro career that began in 1980 and spans 106 fights.

Horse Racing

Gamble Pays Off

Long shot Pinkie Swear won the $50,000 David "Zeke" Ferguson Memorial (grade II) hurdle race by a neck at Colonial Downs. The big, lanky 5-year-old, carrying jockey Sean Clancy, beat Ninepins (Arch Kingsley Jr.) for trainer Charlie Fenwick and Arcadia Stables in the time of 4 minutes 3.29 seconds.

Jockey Jonathan Thomas (Dr. Ramsey) won the $20,000 Allowance hurdle race for trainer Jack Fisher.


Three-Way Tie at Buick

Stuart Appleby and David Toms put together effortless rounds that landed them in a three-way tie for the lead at the Buick Challenge in Pine Mountain, Ga.

Appleby finished with an 8-under 64 and Toms turned in a 6-under 66. That left them at 10-under 134 along with Harrison Frazar, who shot a 67. John Daly, in his first tournament since admitting he has starting drinking again, shot a 74 and missed the cut. . . .

Annika Sorenstam turned a four-shot deficit into a two-stroke lead with a 6-under-par 66 in the second round of the New Albany Golf Classic in Ohio.

After an opening-round 68, she stands at 10-under 134 at the midpoint of the $1 million tournament.

Auto Racing

Nemechek Earns Pole

Joe Nemechek, who will leave Sabco Racing at the end of the season, earned his first Winston Cup victory last month in Loudon, N.H., and followed it with his second pole of the season, taking the top spot for the NAPA AutoCare 500 at Martinsville (Va.) Speedway with a fast lap of 95.223 mph.

LocallyLuge Clinic USA Luge will bring its Junior Luge Series street clinic and recruitment program to 11th St. NW between Euclid and W streets today and Sunday at 9 a.m. and 2 p.m. each day.


Rapids Win

In Denver, the Colorado Rapids failed to score for the third straight game but prevailed in a shootout for a 1-0 victory over the San Jose Clash. Rapids midfielder Anders Limpar scored the clinching penalty kick.

CAPTION: Venus Williams, above, tops Martina Hingis, 6-2, 6-7 (8-6), 9-7, in Munich.