The countdown to the new rugby season has begun. The Guinness Pro12 has become the Pro14, Leigh Halfpenny has joined the Scarlets, and the other regions are flexing whatever muscle they can muster. Geraint Powell casts a beady eye over the goings-on and says this will be a season of signs of what is to follow.
Make no mistake, 2017-18 will be a pivotal season in Welsh rugby.
Watch very closely, indeed, everything that the Welsh Rugby Union (WRU) does or does not do.
With the conclusion of the Lions tour, the profitable half of the professional game – Test rugby – now turns exclusively to preparing for the next World Cup
A more expansive playing style was adopted by some Welsh coaches last season and during the summer – certainly, more expansive than they had shown with Wales in recent seasons.
We saw a footballing No.12 utilised where Wales have previously much preferred the straight running Jamie Roberts since Gavin Henson left the Test 12 jersey equation all too early.
Will Warren Gatland, reinforced with a feel-good vibe from a drawn Lions series in New Zealand, now be able to drive Wales forward towards his final challenge as head coach in Japan in 2019?
All three SANZAAR nations will be in Cardiff this autumn campaign, followed by a Six Nations with tricky 2nd and 3rd round away matches in London and Dublin, and then a Welsh tour of Argentina next summer.
The more time Gatland has in the past spent with the Welsh squad, the better the results have been. That’s just a fact, whatever your views on the supply chain as to the cause.
As for the non-Test half of the professional game, the loss making half across the globe, 2016-17 concluded with the WRU taking ownership of one region, another region suffering an injury-fuelled alarming decline in on field form, and with two other regions releasing grim off-field financial results.
The 2017-18 season will be when – now it is close to universally accepted that the 2003 model will never become sustainable and viable without major reform – we will get our first embryonic clues from the increasingly dominant WRU as to the next regional model from 2020.
Will, as expected, the WRU show signs of treating the Dragons as a different severed entity?
Will the other 75% of regional and WRU expenditure be treated as one until 2020, when those three regions and businesses are in reality remarkably different from each other? Or will we see greater signs of WRU direct 25% expenditure interaction with individual businesses, rather than across an illusory and non-existent homogeneous whole?
Will the WRU move towards an agreed pre-emptive footprint announcement for the post-2020 non-Test professional game business model at their autumn 2018 AGM, presenting a fait accompli over non-negotiable core issues that have so bogged down the unsustainable current “model”?
The Scarlets, a region and previously a 1st class/professional club for rural West Wales, who have historically been able to regularly punch well above their weight, were able to restore some respectability to Welsh regional rugby in 2016-17 with a scintillating and title winning end to their Pro12 campaign.
The debate will go on about the need for Welsh regions to lamentably punch above their intrinsic financial/business weight to even become competitive. It’s an inevitable result of an accumulated and a self-inflicted, disjointed structural mess over matters of geography, identity, ownership, player-contracting and feeder club link-ups etc.
But there was no doubt that Wayne Pivac’s Scarlets were packing a punch well above their balance sheet. Ask Leinster and Munster, if you do not believe me.
The non-Test professional rugby landscape has been dominated across the globe for the last 5-7 years by the enormous inflationary pressures emanating from the French and English club leagues. There was a glut of new broadcaster money entering domestic markets with a shortage of home grown talent (due to the large number of clubs).
There was inflation in France fuelled by the Qatari beIN entering the domestic market and challenging the Canal+ monopoly, and inflation in England fuelled by BT using English club rugby as part of the BT Sport tool to try and stop Sky’s penetration of BT’s domestic broadband market.
These excesses have wrought havoc south of the equator. An over stretched Australia, in expansionary provincial teams mode, was left exposed to external pressures from Europe that were clearly not factored in.
South Africa, with a bigger domestic market but already faced by the twin challenges of racial transformation and currency decline, was in no better a position.
Only New Zealand, better strategically sewn together as a rugby pyramid, has been able to weather the storm with losses mostly confined to the “not good enough to ever be a top All Black” category of player.
These pressures are now easing, with domestic TV contracts in England and France agreed for some years to come.
With question marks over loss-making beIN’s financial viability in France, and with BT Sport now having a deflationary “beholden” control over the English club league with no serious remaining competition, it is anybody’s guess whether/when TV right’s inflation will return. English club rugby is unlikely to significantly drive further BT Sport subscriptions.
It is widely predicted that there will be little growth in EPCR TV rights values upon renewal in 2018, an organisation and a competition currently three sponsors short of the additional four sought in 2014 in a UK market with a glut of sports sponsorships currently available. UK rights are even predicted to fall, through providing some terrestrial TV coverage.
There is now some limited TV income growth for Pro12 teams, as the Cheetahs and Southern Kings leave Super Rugby and dip their toes in north/south non-Test rugby competition.
A so-called “proof of concept” for South Africa, has been part funded by Naspers’ SuperSport channel and provides a rumoured additional £500,000 to each Welsh region net of their travel costs and is, perhaps, the first of further Pro14 expansions into other primary TV markets in the years ahead.
And there is also an improved product to sell to UK/Ireland broadcasters (and sponsors) when these come-up for renewal from 2018-19, complete with brand exposure in South Africa.
Yes, watch very carefully for clues in 2017-18.
The WRU took ownership of the Dragons too late this summer to make that many major changes ahead of the current season, so now watch closely for signs of evolution and particularly for signs of engagement with the wider regional mass of rugby supporters and the 73 member clubs.
Look for signs that the WRU’s Dragons subsidiary is being logically integrated more with above and below, and for signs of fresh private investment and upon what business model and contractual terms?
Look, too, for signs that the Cardiff Athletic Club will effectively hand over ownership of the Arms Park to the major Blues funding directors for 125 years, for surely they must do so or the Blues region will fold?
If there is no such lease, the only issue is surely then whether the WRU take over the Blues upon collapse or start again in that region without all the previous divisive club baggage?
And keep an eye for signs of whether the Blues are slashing their costs in the short to medium term, as already intimated by the apparent offloading of Franco van der Merwe before his arrival.
For signs that the Scarlets can utilise their Pro12 success to open up new commercial sponsor income streams, for they do not have the same level of private wealth behind them as others to constantly fund large annual financial losses and a growing internalised debt. To their credit, the Scarlets have had some great offers this summer to try and increase their retail crowd.
For signs that the Ospreys will return to their historic physical dominance of opponents but, if the Scarlets remain ahead of the Ospreys, also for any signs whether their devolved commercial/retail income streams are falling in response to income streams rising at the neighbouring Scarlets?
And also look close for clues further down the WRU pyramid.
For signs that the regional Premiership Select teams are beginning to attract greater fan interest.
For whatever the player development evaluation, and views are very much polarised due to some of the dire results, they have so far been a commercial disaster by almost universal agreement.
And for signs that the WRU Premiership, now split east/west (semi-pro club strength mostly the reverse of regional professional player development strength) and other clubs will enjoy better relations with the regions.
The neglect of the WRU Premiership (perceived or real) to avoid further stressing the regions from below, has pushed many club fans’ patience to breaking point. And not just the remaining limited number of actual club attendees, but the many now lapsed from rugby apart from when Wales play.
Look, also, for signs of improvement at the Blues and Dragons regions in particular, where there have been greater flashpoints over the last decade.
And, of course, for signs that the RGC development region are looking towards a professional game future beyond playing South Walian semi-pro clubs in an inconvenient non-regional time slot.
For, as debt fatigue overwhelms the 1st and 2nd generation of private investors in South Wales, North Wales is a virgin regional rugby territory for any interested private wealth and without all the divisive and visceral historic club tribalism of South Wales.
Yes, 2017-18 is a pivotal season for Welsh rugby. Look very closely, and read between the lines.
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