A little over a year ago Red Rugby published this post previewing the 2013/2014 season. Looking back on it, I’m amazed by how optimistic we were. The piece was littered with phrases like, “this season [looks set to be] a real belter”, “you can expect a greater fight from the Welsh regions” and (perhaps worst of all) “come this time next August, the make-up of northern hemisphere club rugby could be very different indeed”. Little did we know that it would actually take till August 2014 for Welsh rugby to sort itself out in the shape of agreement between the Welsh Regions and the WRU. Last season was so blighted by that ongoing row (which was played out both at home and in Europe over the course of the year) that rugby, especially quality rugby, seemed to take a back seat. The Regions had a woeful campaign, with no representative making it to the latter stages of either the Pro12 or Heineken Cup. On the international stage Wales spluttered through the season (winning only five out of eleven tests) and posted some really disappointing results in Dublin, Twickenham and Durban. So it looks as though that post of twelve months back was a load of all phooey (apart from our eerily accurate prediction of a ‘Guinness Pro12’ that is). But fear not, intrepid reader, we won’t be making that mistake again.
Yet it seems that some are already doing just that. The long awaited signing of the new Rugby Services Agreement (RSA) seems to have brought not only peace and harmony to the Principality but also a renewed sense of optimism: Sam Warburton can play again…hooray! Our teams will now be more competitive both on and off the field…hoorah! London Welsh are back in the Aviva Premiership…uh, perhaps we better not mention that given their opening day hammering last weekend. Still, there’s a general feelgood factor permeating through Welsh rugby at present. Add to that the impressive start to the season by the Regions (some victories against quality English opposition and a good Round One of the new Pro12) and maybe we should, as The Western Mail told us this week, believe the hype. But how do we avoid falling into the same trap of the last outing where ‘the hype’ soon dissipated into despair. Put simply, Welsh rugby needs to learn the lessons of the past tumultuous twelve months. Here we look at each of them: the good, the bad and the ugly.
The regions have got their house in order – The 2012 PricewaterhouseCoopers report into the state of Welsh rugby was absolutely damning in its criticism of the management at the four Welsh Regions. It stated they, “could and should have been run in a more professional and commercial manner”. How times have changed. Two years on and the Regions now appear (at least from the outside) to be both more professional and commercial in their running. Their ability to work together (as Regional Rugby Wales) has paid off, with lucrative European Cup and BT Sport deals forthcoming. The four teams now have to take this forward into this season and beyond, and focus on a problem still affecting the Welsh game – poor average attendance at grounds.
Rejoice! A deal has been done – It says something about the schizophrenic nature of Welsh rugby that, within a few days of the new RSA being announced, several ex-players were questioning its viability. It would seem that we just can’t stop picking fights in Wales. The truth of the matter is an agreement has been reached – an agreement which, at one time, looked highly unlikely. Everyone in Welsh rugby has a responsibility to use this new found stability as a springboard to bigger and better things. Bickering in the back pages or on sports pages will not help anyone at this stage. In this regard, the media as much as the international alumni need to reign in the temptation to speak out before the new agreement has had chance to succeed.
The Pro12 is here to stay, get used to it – A by-product of the whole Welsh rugby row was the seemingly obsessive desire of some regional rugby fans to jump the Pro12 ship and dock in the (perceived) better waters of the Aviva Premiership. Such a move did at one point look likely, when the future of European competition was very much in doubt. But even after that dispute was settled, with the creation of the Rugby Champions Cup, many fans were still begging for the Ospreys, Dragons, Scarlets and Blues to join the English league. That option is now definitely off the table and will remain so for many a year. In fact, the whole concept was never going to work while English clubs maintain a promotion and relegation scenario. Those pro-Aviva fans should now focus their attention on (what is becoming) an increasingly competitive Pro12 league. The introduction of Guinness as title sponsor this year (a much more natural fit than the clumsy Rabobank sponsorship), coverage by Sky Sports and the new qualification rules for Europe mean this edition of the Celtic League will be the best yet. Furthermore, there were suggestions this week that while the Pro12 is a league on the up, the Aviva is a league in reverse. Dissident regional fans be warned: the grass is not always greener on the other side.
Time to regain that 2011/12 confidence – Do you remember those halcyon days of autumn 2011 when we realised that Wales had a genuine chance of becoming World Champions? Do you remember the following Six Nations, when Warren Gatland’s men swept all before them to record yet another Grand Slam? Do you remember the confidence and swagger that our players adopted at that time? If you’ve answered no to that last point, no one would blame you. It’s been an age since confidence ran through Welsh rugby and many of us will forget how confident (if not unstoppable) the national team appeared to be not so long ago. Since then, a couple of landmark defeats and the stubborn refusal of that monkey called ‘beating one of the big three’ to shift from Welsh backs has meant that many view this coming season and Rugby World Cup 2015 with trepidation. Wales are a good team, and not far off from being a great team. We need to have more confidence in them. They need to play with more confidence themselves. If they do, it could be an unforgettable year.
The WRU need to come good on governance reform – There’s been some daft moments over the last twelve months. The return of David Moffett and his ‘One Wales’ manifesto being one that springs immediately to mind. But one point that the ex-CEO did successfully argue is that the structure of the WRU board is horrendously out-of date, and it needs to change. It’s good to see the Dragons Chief Executive Gareth Davies putting himself up for election as a National Director. This should improve the situation, but it won’t solve it. A wide-ranging reform of how the board is arranged needs to occur to ensure that proper scrutiny of the Executive is achieved (something that has been shown to be sadly lacking in recent times). The WRU have commissioned their own review and will report back to clubs at the upcoming Annual General Meeting. Let’s hope proposed changes are profound rather than cosmetic.
Lay off the abusive tweets tweeps – By far the most disturbing trend to emerge over the last few seasons is the tendency for certain fans to abuse players, journalists and administrators (and even fellow fans) via the anonymous sanctuary of Twitter. The civil-war that engulfed Welsh rugby last year was always bound to stir emotions and stoke the fire in the bellies of any Welsh rugby fan, but all too often that fire turned into aggressive, personal comment. This was particularly prevalent among the anti-WRU camp who were too quick to adopt a ‘you’re either with us or against us’ approach. Any comment which questioned the stance of these supporters was all too often met with a torrent of abuse or (perversely) accusations of ‘trolling’ (as this blog knows only too well). If Welsh rugby is to thrive over the coming years and beyond, let’s keep the debate but ditch the personal taunts, slights and abuse. As they say on Channel 4’s ‘Last Leg’ programme, “Don’t be a dick”.
Let’s hope that, in twelve months time, we’re not looking back on another underwhelming season in Welsh rugby. All things considered though, there are more reasons to be cheerful this season than last.