I’m not what you’d call a stereotypical Welshman – I don’t live in Wales; I tend not to have my curry served with half chips and half rice; and I can honestly say I’ve never asked “Whose coat is that jacket”? Having said that, I am a singer and I’ve been known to frequent a male-voice choir or two in my time. For just over a year now my Monday nights have involved racing down to Clapham North for a weekly A Cappella rehearsal with a dozen other musical types (some of them Welsh). Back in January a mate from the group (and fellow expat) came up to me and asked, “So what’s going on with the regions and the WRU then”? In rugby terminology this question is a bit of a hospital pass. You could make several cases for what the cause is of this seemingly endless spat between the governing body and Wales’ four professional teams. As such, it’s a topic which I’ve (so far) tried to avoid in this blog. To be honest, there were better things to write about – Wales winning back-to-back Six Nations titles for example. Let’s not forget, when Gethin Jenkins and Ryan Jones lifted that trophy in the dark of the Millennium Stadium, all seemed sweet within the game in Wales. But harmony has since broken into discord with the news of George North’s imminent departure from the Scarlets to Northampton. Today, the professional game in Wales finds itself in a crisis played out in the press rather than the board room. Hyperbole, rumour and finger-pointing dominate the sports pages across the Severn at present. Now seems as good a time as any to analyse what’s going on. Ed, this one’s for you.
When rugby union turned professional in 1995, governing bodies around the world were faced with a choice of whether they should attempt to maintain control over their key talent (clubs, players etc.). Many countries (including New Zealand, Australia, South Africa and Ireland) decided to go down this route and introduced central contracts. Under this arrangement the country’s top players and coaches were contracted (paid) by the home union directly, meaning the governing body could decide when and where their stars played/coaches operated. In doing so, the priority of these countries became clear – the national team came first and all other interests were to be arranged to the benefit of the national team. Where other unions were quick to make a decision, the Welsh Rugby Union dithered and an odd status-quo was maintained amongst the country’s top-flight teams. However, there was one main difference in that a handful of privileged clubs could now call on some wealthy supporters to financially back them in their quest to be among the best sides in Europe. During the era of the ‘haves’ and ‘have-nots’ in Welsh Rugby, some clubs prospered (e.g. Cardiff, Newport and Neath) but many more floundered under the financial strain and it was soon clear that Wales could not maintain more than a handful of professional teams due to a limited amount of money and the limited amount of quality players. Meanwhile, the dearth of playing talent was having a detrimental effect on the Welsh National Side who had not won anything of note since 1994. A consensus to change the situation prevailed and in April 2003 it was announced that Wales would have five ‘regional’ teams who would represent the country in the recently formed Celtic League and Heineken Cup. The five teams became four a year later when the Celtic Warriors outfit went bankrupt.
The four regions which remained at the start of the 2005/06 season (Scarlets, Ospreys, Cardiff Blues and Newport Gwent Dragons) still exist today but while they have savoured some degree of success (five Celtic League titles, two Anglo-Welsh Cups and one European Challenge Cup between them) they have continued to struggle financially. Why? Well, the Welsh public have never really bought into the idea of regional rugby and attendances have remained low (around the 7,000 mark on average). In addition, the same benefactors that elevated their chosen clubs to financial heights in the late-90s have become disillusioned after years of carrying the costs of their teams and they’ve begun to walk away. Put simply, the money isn’t there for the regions to compete where it matters – Europe. The Heineken Cup remains the pinnacle for any club side in the northern hemisphere and, at present, the Welsh sides are hopelessly off the pace compared to the riches that are available in other countries (notably France). In their attempt to succeed in Europe, the regions have created a ‘funding gap’ (i.e. they’re spending money they don’t have). A financial review by PricewaterhouseCoopers commissioned last year by the WRU and the regions stated that the regions will not be able to continue unless this funding gap is met by continued additional funding. In contrast to the gloomy situation at regional level, the Welsh National Team have just won a fourth Six Nations title in eight years and the WRU continues to generate record amounts of turnover. Yet, the majority of the players who helped to achieve this success are employed by the regions, who invariably have seen very little of their star players due to a packed international calendar. This has led to the difficult (yet understandable) decision to sell key talent to generate income, hence the departure of the likes of Phillips, Byrne, Hook, Charteris, Roberts, Lydiate and (most recently) North. The worry for the WRU is that if the best players are continually sold to clubs abroad, the national team will not have the same amount of access and opportunity to monitor their players (which is seen as a necessity if success is to be maintained at international level). The regions argue that they want the national side to succeed but they will be forced to sell their prized assets unless the WRU shares some of its financial spoils and provides more money to each team. The WRU doesn’t want to do this for two reasons: firstly, the union has an agreement with Barclays to pay off its historic Millennium Stadium debt in arranged installments and doesn’t want to waver from this commitment. Secondly, the union doesn’t seem convinced that providing more funds would solve the inherent problems of regional rugby. Addressing the reasons behind the financial plight, the damning PWC report pointed to, amongst other things, poor management on the regions part saying they “could and should have been run in a more professional and commercial manner”.
The report concluded that the WRU and regions should “adopt a closer, collaborative approach” with the creation of a management board to enforce it. In doing so, it seemed that PWC had got to the heart of the relationship between the two parties – a ‘can’t live with them, can’t live without them’ association. The time had come to end the chorus of disapproval and for all parties to start singing from the same hymn sheet. A frustratingly ambiguous conclusion it may have been but having ruled out all other options (including central contracts, reverting to the old club structure and the WRU taking over all of professional rugby) it seemed to be the only route available. So, in December of last year the (does it exactly what it says on the tin) Professional Regional Game Board was formed consisting of regional and WRU representatives, headed by an independent Chairman. All decisions facing regional rugby were to be heard by the PRGB with the Chairman having the deciding vote, which all parties agreed was the fairest and best way forward. All hunky dory then. If only! The board has yet to hold its first proper meeting with both the union and regions claiming that the other side has attempted to alter the terms in which the PRGB will operate. The regions say that the WRU has insisted the independent Chairman will not have the casting vote in what is claimed to be an attempt to sideline the PRGB for their own benefit. In return, the WRU have accused the regions (under the auspices of their umbrella body Regional Rugby Wales) of using the PRGB as a tool to gain undue control of Welsh Rugby (including a say in who the next Head Coach of Wales and Chief Executive of WRU should be). And so an argument which started as being about money has descended into being about control and who has it. We’ve been here before of course, first in 1995 and then in 2003 with the advent of regional rugby itself when WRU attempts to create a truly regional game in Wales (including a team based in Wrexham) were scuppered by the interests of the ‘big name’ clubs. The botched-up compromise that followed has resulted in where we are today – a rugby nation making a name for itself as a dissonant choir of whingers rather than the nation of song that we would like to portray to the world.
This Blogger’s Thoughts
The regions have said they will address the WRU board next week in an attempt to find a solution to this mess. Yet it is hard to see any real progress being made unless both sides are prepared to address the problems of the past. At present, regional rugby in Wales is not an attractive product for the average rugby supporter. The contradictory concept of ‘regions’ is inaccessible for fans outside of the major cities in which they reside. Furthermore, the Pro12 league in which they play is second rate (a ‘best of the rest’ tournament compared to the more competitive English and French leagues). My worry is that unless substantial change is agreed upon by all sides over the coming weeks and months, we will be having the same debate within the decade. That is, if regional rugby survives that long. But let’s end this post on a more positive note: as embarrassing and downright boring as this current feud is, it presents Welsh rugby with an opportunity to finally solve a problem twenty years in the making. With the future of the Heineken Cup (in its current format) still very much in doubt, there couldn’t be a better time to address historic issues and change for the better. The make-up of European club rugby is in flux. Let’s end the whinging and grasp the opportunity to make Wales the leading European nation at both international and club/regional level. The harmony of our game depends on it.