Taking Wales out of the Valleys

Welsh rugby has had more peaks and troughs than a roller-coaster ride in recent years. The only saving grace being that the peaks have been pretty constant and extremely rewarding.

Three Grand Slams, a fourth Six Nations title and fourth place at the World Cup is a rich return for a country that boasts a mere 12,000 senior players and has a cradle-to-grave playing population that is half that of Ireland and Scotland, dwarfed by France and England and smaller even than Italy.

Mixed in with the successes from 2005 are a triumph in the IRB Rugby Sevens World Cup (2009) and a runners-up spot in the Junior World Championships (2012).

The last two British & Irish Lions teams have also been dominated by Welsh players, bringing three wins in six Tests in South Africa and Australia.

Is this a golden generation for Welsh rugby? When you consider Shane Williams, Ryan Jones, Gethin Jenkins, Adam Jones, Sam Warburton, Leigh Halfpenny, Alun-Wyn Jones, Mike Philipps, Stephen Jones and now George North, you would probably have to say it is.

Has the Welsh golden generation delivered more than their Irish counterparts at international level? Unquestionably.

Yet for all this success, regional rugby in Wales has been a basket case on the European stage and, apart from the Ospreys, barely raised a challenge at Pro12 level.

It is one of the modern game’s biggest conundrums. How can Welsh regional teams travel to Thomond Park, Ravenhill or the RDS and appear physically intimidated and get so badly beaten so often, yet when the same players amalgamate into a red-shirted Welsh national team they can beat Ireland in a World Cup quarter-final and win at the Aviva?

If the Irish win hands down when it comes to the provincial/regional comparison, why do Wales far exceed the Irish on the international stage?

The investment from the Welsh Rugby Union into their national team knows no limits, as the recent re-signing of Warren Gatland through to the 2019 World Cup showed, and the national team’s training facilities are the envy of the rugby world.

But what of the future? While the WRU keeps pouring more and more money into the national team, the lack of funding at the regional level is in danger of turning them into an irrelevance in the scheme of things.

Last week’s much heralded signing on a central contract of the Wales and Lions skipper Warburton may be the start of things to come. He will be loaned out, free of charge we hear, to a regional side as and when the WRU wish to release him. But the regions, as in England and France, are independent businesses who will surely want to control their assets both on and off the pitch.

Warburton is staying in Wales, as is the Ospreys skipper Alun-Wyn Jones, but soon the Wales line-up could have an increasingly foreign look to it: Halfpenny (Toulon), Roberts (Racing Metro), Hook (Perpignan), Phillips (Racing Metro), James (Bath), Hibbard (Gloucester), Evans (Toulon), Lydiate (Racing Metro), Pretorius (Worcester).

Will it really matter? After all, that is how the Welsh, Irish and Scottish national soccer sides operate. The better players gravitate to the richer clubs and then return to play for their national teams. But just look what is left behind.

Welsh rugby fans don’t want to switch on their TVs and see younger and younger regional teams getting beaten more and more often in less and less meaningful competitions. The Welsh international team is already the cuckoo in the nest in professional rugby in an incredibly congested sporting market place in south Wales, where it is one of 10 professional sports teams playing in a 100-mile radius all served by 1.5 million people.

Just over a year ago the regions took the decision to wind down their annual salary cap to £3m. That move has at least helped them to stop haemorrhaging money — the Ospreys cut their losses by 90% from £1.8m to £180,000 in the last financial year — but has inevitably left them weaker on the field.

More than that, it has left them unable to compete with the wage packets being offered by the French and English clubs. At the moment it is the top stars who are leaving, in the future it will be those players coming out of the U20s.

It may be easy for Saracens to lose £6m each year in their pursuit of silverware, but the Aviva Premiership has a TV rights package worth £30m. In France the Top 14 clubs have just negotiated a deal worth £65m. What has the Pro12 got coming in next season? £5.5m. As Peter Thomas, the Cardiff Blues chairman said last week: “You do the maths!”

For the regions to be competitive& they need a better, more equitable relationship with the WRU. They need more money, they need to be more efficient, but they must become more competitive to ensure the game at international level in Wales remains successful.

Graham Henry, the coach of the reigning world champions, named Wales and France among the five teams he thought could win the 2015 World Cup. The other three were, of course, the southern hemisphere giants, but there was no concern about England or Ireland.

Regional rugby celebrated its 10th anniversary last year. In that time the Welsh teams have won five Pro12 titles, the Amlin Challenge Cup once and reached the semi-finals of the Heineken Cup twice. They have also lost between £60-80m between them.

How much more successful might they have been had there not been so much fighting between themselves and the WRU over that time?

Is Wales’ recent success at international a direct result of the regions being created and their work with the players? It is difficult to argue against that. Has the increase of Welsh matches and commitments militated against the regions in an over-crowded Welsh sports market place? Definitely.

But just think how much stronger Welsh rugby as a whole could be if the current negotiations between the WRU and Regional Rugby Wales reach an amicable, workable, reasonable and co-operative agreement that allows both parties to flourish. It hasn’t happened yet, but when it does the rest of the rugby world had better look out.

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