If you’re a Welsh rugby fan (and I am), or even if you’re a casual observer of all things Welsh rugby, you’ll know that, despite the national side being on a record-breaking run of wins and just two victories away from a Grand Slam, things are not well in the Welsh game. Specifically, things are not well in the regional game, with our four professional sides struggling to compete both on and off the field with their Irish, English, French and even Scottish counterparts. The bottom line here is a lack of success at that level due to (so the argument goes) an uneven financial playing field. Why so little money compared to the rest of Europe? Among other things, attendances are chronically low, and a lack of commercial ‘opportunity’ pervades the regions’ business plans. Such problems have persisted ever since the introduction of regional rugby over 15 years ago.
Hence the creation of ‘Project Reset’, set up to find a collective solution to this problem. To drive that, a new Professional Rugby Board (PRB) was created with representatives of all parties on it (i.e. the four regions and the WRU), presided over by an independent Chair. This new era of shared decision-making is in stark contrast to the Lewis-Pickering era where the Union sought to control from the centre. In principal the idea of a PRB is a good one: in order to find an effective and long-term solution, collaboration (and eventually agreement) between the parties that make up the professional game is the way forward.
And yet these last few weeks have seen headlines which would easily make the top 10 list of ‘Welsh rugby’s greatest fall-outs and fuck-ups’…and that’s a competitive list. Most of the consternation, eyebrow-raising and all-out anger has come from the proposed merger between Scarlets and Ospreys (Wales’ most successful regions to date). It’s an idea that, even a month ago, would have seemed ridiculous to the point of impossibility. However, given that the PRB believe the best way to maximise commercial opportunity is to have regions based in the North, South, East and West (as opposed to across the M4 corridor), you begin to understand why discussions have gone down that route. Nevertheless, the idea that the persistently awful Dragons would be maintained while Scarlets and Ospreys would cease to exist is a cause of (quite understandable) sting.
When news started to break earlier this week that the merger was not only an idea but actually very, very close to being a reality, players and fans were understandably shocked and, in some cases, angry at the lack of consultation outside of the PRB. This ‘bad taste’ was then compounded by a a series of statements and counter-statements with Ospreys crying foul (or should that be fowl), claiming no merger would take place even though the PRB (which the Ospreys are part of) said they had come to a unanimous agreement just a few days previously.
With all this trauma, argument and finger-pointing (and no sign of real progress being made), you’d be forgiven for thinking that Welsh rugby is back to its darkest days: the ones characterised by parochialism, bitterness and, ultimately, stalemate. But to do so would be to prematurely and unnecessarily dismiss ‘Project Reset’. There is a key difference to the situation we find ourselves in compared to other (recent) turbulent times – the way forward is much clearer.
Back when Roger Lewis was CEO of the WRU, there was a very clear distinction between ‘The Regions’ and ‘The Union’, with both sides stubbornly sticking to their guns, unwilling to budge. This time around, the responsibility to find a solution (as defined by the PRB) is collective – it’s not confined solely to the WRU, and neither should it be. Yes, a decision as huge as a Scarlets-Ospreys merger should have been discussed more with fans and players once it was identified as a possible solution. And, yes, the Ospreys have thrown a very public grenade this week – the likes of which, in the past, have usually resulted in the whole process being ripped up.
But we shouldn’t write off Project Reset just yet nor the PRB. Neither should Welsh rugby fall into the historic trap of shrugging the shoulders, shouting ‘What’s the point’ and storming off into their respective corners. To do so would be folly. The problem still persists, and it’s not going away. The way forward is a collective agreement, formed by all parties of the PRB. The other options (Union takes control, maintaining status quo etc.) have all been proven to be unworkable. The Ospreys who, for the time being, are at odds with their fellow PRB members will soon have to come back to the table and participate once more. The alternative is to consign themselves (and the other regions) to obscurity.
So the way forward continues to be through the PRB. That’s definitely the method, but what the conclusion will be still seems a way off. A new region in North Wales looks more likely than ever. Squaring that side into the four-team structure that Wales can afford, however, remains a difficult task. All roads point to a contentious decision being made – one that will require proper communication and discussion with those affected to manage what will be a difficult period of change. The responsibility to drive and manage that change rests with the entire PRB. This time around, trying to deflect blame onto the Union (and deny collective responsibility) will not work, as I’m sure the Ospreys will discover as the next few days and weeks develop. Such actions will be, at best, counter-productive and, at worst, self-destructive.
We’ve hit a considerable bump in the road this week, but stick to your guns boyos…
…it’s the only road we’ve got.