By Steffan Thomas
The points raised by Nigel Davies about the confusion that currently exists among the Principality Premiership clubs regarding their future place in the game in Wales has stimulated a lot of debate.
Will the new Under 23/A teams created by the WRU lead to the demise of some of Welsh rugby’s biggest clubs in the not too distant future, or will they be able to survive and thrive on less than half the money they currently receive from their parent body?
With annual costs of running a rugby club averaging between £50-80,000pa, and more than four times that amount for a semi-pro Premiership club, the decision by the WRU to cut funding from £100,000 to £50,000 per season within two years has left many of this season’s 16 teams – they will be cut to 12 next winter – fearing for a meaningful future after more than a century of service to the game.
But if not the WRU way forward, where more and more investment is put into the regional game to try to create a better pathway for the elite players of the future, then what?
Davies was criticised for not having an alternative plan, but his Premiership clubs’ committee colleague Jonathan Jones, chairman at Ebbw Vale, has similarly strong views.
The Steelmen won the title three seasons ago having fought their way back from the old Division 1 East/ Championship. They have hosted Dragons matches at their Eugene Cross Park ground and recently helped Wales Under 20 No 8 Harrison Keddie and wing Jarrad Rosser, among others, to get used to the rigours of professional rugby.
And coaches Jason Strange (now backs coach at the Blues) and Ceri Jones (forwards coach at the Dragons) cut their teeth at Eugene Cross Park having been given the chance to coach in Wales after playing in England.
“Our biggest concern at the moment is there are too many mixed messages flying about concerning the structure of the new season. We have been quite clearly told by Martyn Phillips and Geraint John that there is no way back from our reduction in numbers from 16 to 12 next season, nor the drastic cut in funding,” said Jones.
“They have told us to stop paying our players, which in the modern age of rugby is an unrealistic prospect. Money is being paid all the way down through the ranks in Welsh rugby, as is permitted under the auspices of an ‘open’ game.
“The regions seem divided on what style teams they will be putting into the new Celtic Cup over the seven week period in the opening two months of the season. For the Dragons it looks like being an Under 23 team, while the Scarlets and Blues are going down the route of an A team. The reality is not the model that the board voted for and someone needs to have the courage to reassess this.
“We hear the Celtic Cup will merely be a developmental tournament in which results will be completely unimportant. Even so, the players will be getting paid for their efforts.
“If that is the case at that level, then why not at Premiership level when they come back to play for our clubs for the majority of their season?
“When the steering group set up by the WRU to look at the player/competition pathway sat down to discuss a way forward there was a wide spread of opinions. Our worry is that the debate was never robust enough and lacked any proper problem solving techniques, detail or thorough analysis.
“Therefore, no assessment and review of the opportunities, risks and consequences has been properly undertaken and we feel we are walking blindly into these changes.
“It also didn’t help ease any of the confusion that when the chief executive was challenged at a meeting with the clubs his reply to a simple question from Dale McIntosh, the Merthyr head coach, about ‘what happens if the changes don’t work’, was a flippant ‘well you can always sack me’.”
Jones adds that he was personally astonished at the opening statement at the same meeting by CEO Phillips: “you may not like what the content is, but there will be no changes”. This was the first sight of what had been billed as a proposal, but in fact was a fete accompli from the WRU.
To make matters worse, there was no concern at this dictat from the union officials when Jones directly questioned this, calling into question the whole integrity of the process.
“Such disdain does a disservice to the wealth of rugby knowledge that exists among the Premiership clubs. We therefore felt it was appropriate to undertake a detailed review of our own performance and relevance and, having done, proposed a five point plan to the WRU,” added Jones.
“This included amongst other things:
· A reduction from 16 to 12 clubs to focus resources (players/coaches)
· Better alignment with Regional teams who would have primacy of contact with the players
· Focus on performance criteria to positively affect playing standards
· Extra training sessions (which would improve standards exponentially)
· Clear identification of minimum criteria costs and installation of a salary cap both aligned to a strict financial plan
“The plan was submitted to the union and has never been formally acknowledged or debated with the Premiership representatives
“The Premiership clubs have played a vital role in giving structure to the game in Wales for more than 100 years, as well as providing a clear pathway to many professional players, coaches and referees in the 23 years of ‘Open’ rugby.
“That may never happen again in the future under the newly introduced system as the level below the professional game will drop in standard. This we all believe will accelerate the nightmare scenario of the game only being played in Schools, Colleges and professional entities, thus shrinking rather than expanded our player base.
“By making the premiership less relevant, there will be less people involved in the game – players, coaches, committee and supporters.
“The cursory way in which the highly paid executives at the WRU have planned and enacted these changes has left us all wondering about the reasons behind the move to create a distinct break between the Professional and Community games in Wales with the creation of a Professional Board.
“The Welsh Rugby Union is exactly that, a Union of clubs, not Welsh Rugby Limited, where the only thing that matters is money and balance sheets. There is a clear view at the top of the WRU that the international and professional games are the only economic drivers and provide all the finances for the community game.
“This attitude takes the union down one particular road, where cash is the only ‘King’ and, as we all know, you can never have enough money in professional sport. Growth only comes to the chosen few, while the many involved in our game would argue that without a community game Welsh rugby has nothing!”
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