Monthly Archives: March 2002

What the WRU really wants

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Whatever the WRU say in their negotiations with the Six Pack, you can guarantee that the vested interests are stronger than the desire to improve the professional game. In the outdated structure of the game in Wales, Rhymney Rugby Club have more say over domestic competition than the Welsh coach.

The vote at the EGM will undoubtedly fail to ratify Terry Cobner’s proposal on a six team franchise for the professional level of the sport in Wales. It’s not a closed shop, and through hard work and dedication any club in Wales can become professional with guaranteed financial support from the Union.

However, the EGM on the 7th will reject this proposal – just what the Union want.

They want the club owners to withdraw from the sport – they want to take ownership of the players and dictate to the players where they should play , who their coach and team mates should be, where they should live, etc. etc. for make no mistake, this is what central contracts mean.

When the owners pull out from the sport, a number of top clubs will go bankrupt and players will become free agents. By “buying up” Neath and already holding dominant shares in Llanelli and Pontypridd, the Union will then be in a position to “own” all the top clubs in Wales. They can then impose any structure they like.

They’ve always wanted control over players’ contracts and now they will have it. Expect the establishment of a number of district teams with all players in these teams contracted solely to the Union. Players in Wales will have two choices to further their earning – either sign a Union contract and be told where to play, or leave Wales and look elsewhere for more freedom of choice.

Salaries offered by the WRU will be lower than those in England – the Union has insufficient resources to keep pumping money to all its 200-odd members and subsidise the top level of the sport.

The district teams (three in South Wales and one in North) will enter the European Cup. Shorn of the top talent in Wales, they will become the also rans of the competition.

The top Welsh players will cross the border to earn more money in England.

The Union will then be faced with a choice – pick the English based players and field a stronger team, or pick the district players and lose.

They’ll opt for the English based players (who will have a much bigger national profile.

Now here’s where it gets interesting. These players will be playing in a higher level of competition and this may well transfer itself into a winning Welsh team.

So the Union wins! They have a domestic structure which they can dominate, they have funds from the international games which mean they can still live in the fashion to which they are accustom, and they have a rock solid future of monopoly control.

What a waste for the Welsh rugby-watching public! We want to cheer our top teams to victory against the best in Europe, and the amateurs in the Union just don’t care about this. All they want is a flat domestic structure where winning their league is more important than winning in Europe. How short sighted for the game in Wales and the development of players who can travel to a country like New Zealand and win a World Cup.

How short term is this?

With domestic teams consistently failing at the highest level – Celtic League and European competition – will the young fail to be attracted to the sport?

With club rugby a poor and irrelevant cousin to the larger, better financed and better supported sport across the border, will the young still be interested?

Without their local heroes to support locally, it’s clear that Welsh domestic rugby will slide into amateurism – played and organised by dedicated individuals at a local level, with a few stars playing in England.

What are our choices?

In calling an extraordinary general meeting on the 7th April the WRU is making their contempt clear for the professional clubs at the top end of the sport in Wales. If ever there was a clear case of sticking two fingers up at the people with whom you are negotiating, this is it.

There now remain three possible scenarios for the future of the game in Wales:-

1. The private subsidisers of the sport in Wales pull their money out and the professional arm of the sport collapses.

2. The Six Pack stick two fingers up at the Union and organise their own competition next season – buying up the best players from the remaining clubs.

3. A smaller number of clubs (probably Newport and Cardiff only) stick two fingers up at the Union and try to enter the English pyramid.

An independent competition next season

Containing six teams with no European competition, played on a two home and away games a season (20 games), the Six Pack may set up their own competition next season, outside the umbrella of the amateur-controlled Union. The clubs may try to set up another club to boost the games to 24.

Marketing the games themselves, they will surely be able to do a better job than the Union of increasing sponsorship levels (particularly if Newport are involved). Who knows, we may even get a sponsor for the new professional league?

Negotiating their own contract with television – much in the same way as Cardiff and Swansea did during the rebel season – will give them a futher source of income.

Remember that the Union have only offered the clubs £900,000 next season and if they feel that they can secure more than this amount, then don’t be surprised if this is the chosen structure for next season.

It’s unlikely that they’ll be much support from across the border in England, but even a low key, reduced number, mid-week cross border knock out competition (including Gloucester, Bristol and Bath) would generate more income than playing Caerphilly or Ebbw Vale.

Joining the English pyramid system

Given European competition law, it’s be interesting to see what would happen if Newport, for example, moved their ground 20 miles east and the club suddenly found themselves in England.

Restraint of trade rules would mean that they’d be able to join the English pyramid.

Without doubt, Gloucester, Bristol and Bath would relish the opportunity of playing against Cardiff and Newport again on a regular basis.

Even if the two clubs applied to join the English system – for example – and ended up at Division 2 level against the likes of Nottingham, Plymouth and Rosslyn Park – this may well be viewed as a preferable to working with the shambolic nature of the WRU where Newport or Cardiff’s voice carries as much weight in decision making as Rhymney’s.

Given the inevitable promotions that would follow, bu 2007, Wales’ two biggest clubs would be in the Premier Division and with all the increased sponsorship and media exposure that would follow, it’s difficult to see how Uncles Peter and Uncle Tony could ignore this as a long term possibility.

Conclusion

So which of these three scenarios are the most likely to come to fruition? Well, Tony Brown and Peter Thomas have come a long way in the last few years and invested vast amounts of money into the sport in Wales. If – as now seems likely – they are unable to defeat the Neolithic union and it’s amateur-dominated structure, will they really give up now?

The players carry the real burden and have the most power in any negotiations that will take place on the game. Sadly, it seems that they are the only part with enough power to force a resolution. With a boycott of the Scottish game looking ever the more likely, and the likely selection of a Scab XV in their place, differences look to be ever wider apart.

It is possible of course that if Newport and Cardiff leave the Union, then we may be left with a mixture of one and three of our possible scenarios. The Union are able to impose their regional structure and destroy the top teams in Wales and Newport and Cardiff decide to play in the English system – all pretty similar to the football example of Cardiff, Swansea and Wrexham.

And the result for the National Team? Just look at Wales’ latest football world ranking!

TWP

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In general Tasker Watkins’ Paper (TWP) report puts more stress on maintaining the fragile harmony that exists (does such a thing exist?) and maintaining the status quo rather than providing a vision for the future of the game.

It is an exclusionary document in that it makes no positive mention of the many private contributors to the sport in Wales — it reiterates the right of the WRU to dictate to clubs rather than work with clubs for the strengthening of the sport. The WRU is there to represent all its members on a one-club-one-vote basis — professional clubs should therefore not see any preferential treatment.

TWP is more significant for what it doesn’t say, rather than what it does say. There is no firm vision for the structure of the club game in Wales – the committee set no standards that clubs must achieve to flourish in the professional era. It merely reflected the lowest common denominator in the game in Wales at the moment and set that as the standard.

Who wrote TWP?

A collection of existing members of the WRU senior echelons (Dennis Gethin, Terry Cobner and Peter Owens), General Committee representatives (from the WRU) (a collection of local MPs and WRU journeymen) and three journalists (Gerald Davies, Gwyn Jones and Ken Jones) compiled TWP. So, there were no professional sportsmen on the TWP committee, no businessmen (successful or otherwise) and certainly no one with direct experience of the running of a professional sports club.

Timeline

Their first meeting was on May 2000 and they met 28 times before producing the report on December 2001. Let’s take a look at the timeline involved in the compilation of this report.

  • 1998 — the WRU set in motion efforts to produce a 10 year plan on the future of the game in Wales
  • May 2000 — TWP committee convene
  • Feb 2002 — The report of the TWP committee should have been presented to the AGM
  • 2004/5 – TWP report proposes implementation of its proposals by this season
  • 2007 — Existing contract with clubs like Ebbw Vale say at least eight teams will remain in the top echelons of the game in Wales.

So for a 10 year plan for the game, almost half of that period was spent writing the report, let alone reaching agreement!

The report states clearly that it is the role of the WRU to represent its members — all of its members — and every member club holds a single share.

The tone of the paper is, as we would expect, entirely reactionary in its context and on the whole is totally reluctant in its tone. Professionalism is described as being “imposed” on the sport (Preface). The open game is described as providing a “heavy burden“. In short, the move to professionalism is viewed with great reluctance.

Again in the preface, whilst clubs are deemed “deeply appreciative” of wealthy benefactors, there’s no mention of appreciation by the Union for these investors in the future of our support. The antagonism and mistrust is clear — money is seen as a threat to the amateur structure of the game, not as an essential part of ensuring a stable future. Professional clubs are described as “expensive” rather than as key instruments in the future of the game.

Cross Border Games

There is some mention of the rebel season in the preface — a move which “disturbed the equanimity of Welsh rugby”. This begs the question whether there has ever been “equanimity” in Welsh rugby! The committee is surely looking through rose tinted spectacles!

Change is something the union wants to avoid — harmony is the goal. It is in “everyone’s interest” that this harmony “must not be disturbed” in the future. So those who want change are clearly not being represented in this report!

Fortunately, the committee members recognise that cross border competitions are the lifeblood for the game — they are “the way ahead“. A purely domestic structure “will not provide the challenge our Clubs and the national team, need to compete at the highest level“.

Overseas Players

Overseas players are viewed as hindering the development of our own young players rather than of acting as professional role models and improving the level of competition. Can we really equate the presence of substandard Tongan professionals in the lower reaches of the leagues with the influence of players like Pieter Muller and Gary Teichmann? Surely these two individuals have obviously had a positive effect on the game in Wales?

The only reason the TWP explains that clubs look overseas for talent is to “compensate for the lack of indigenous talent“, rather than to ensure role models for the development of young players (see Jamie Robinson’s development under the tutelage of Pieter Muller. Tom Shanklin says he wanted to play at Saracens to learn from players like Tim Horan).

The report raises the question as to whether the “increasing number of overseas players deny opportunities for emerging talent“, but does not raise the question as to whether overseas players raise the level of competition at the top level of the sport and therefore force Welsh-qualifies players to improve.

What these comments betray is the “little Wales” attitude in the Union – the idea that we Welsh are somehow unique and better off isolated. Foreigners deprive local players of opportunities – they don’t act as mentors.

The days of the Welsh exporting their coaching talents overseas are long gone. Not since the days of Carwyn have we been teachers of the world of rugby. The time is to learn from “the outside” – not to pull the drawbridge up and bury our heads in the sand.

Central Contracts

Whilst the Union clearly has responsibility for the structure of the game, the working party has more concrete recommendations on club contracts, payments for players and getting Union representatives on club’s boards than on recommending a concrete structure for the top level of the sport.

The Executive of the WRU should be able to see all club contracts, according to the TWP. (There is no mention of a reciprocal agreement for clubs to view Union contracts!) “All National Team players should be contracted to the Union” — but the report does not go on to explain why?

“What we want to avoid is some kind of market place where relatively few well-off Clubs are able to attract players to the detriment of other clubs.” Wake up WRU! This is already happening! It’s called professionalism! The cream will always rise to the top! This King Canute approach to managing the game is resulting in millions of pounds being poured into poorly managed, commercially unsustainable enterprises. If the WRU wants a club structure that can compete in cross border competitions, then they need to ensure these clubs are operating under similar conditions as their French or English rivals.

Forcing players to play for clubs they may not want will surely be a huge demotivating influence.

It’s also quite clearly a huge disincentive to invest in a vibrant Youth structure, if the players a club develops can be forced to play for the competition.

And then there’s the inevitable influence of under-the-table deals and back handers to get players to come to “my club”.

Number of Clubs

The WRU exists for its members” the report proudly announces. Well, this worked well in the amateur era, but amateurs running the professional game is clearly not a recipe for the dynamic development of the game in Wales.

The committee choses not to provide any definite proposals, rather it suggests that yet another WRU committee make recommendations (i.e. take another four years to make any recommendations!).

The committee’s suggested criteria for selection of clubs at the top level are:-

  • The club must have been placed in the top six on average for the last six years (an interesting way of calculating the appropriate club. We need Statto’s help to work out why they chose this method …. Wonder who comes in at number six?
  • Existing Strong squad of players
  • Distinct location
  • Proven spectator base
  • A stadium that can hold at least 5,000

Contrast this with the RFU’s rules and you begin to see the limited aspirations of the Union.

  • Separate training facilities — both indoors and outdoors
  • Ability of obtain significant funding in addition to WRU funding

This last point says more than anything about how paralyzed the Union is to impose central control on the game, the clubs and most importantly, the players. The Union has no money – it needs private investors to keep the clubs afloat, but cannot bring itself to allow these individuals to run the clubs and contract players without their input!

All seven points are as far from controversial as possible. Furthermore, they are so subjective as to be meaningless. As for point 5, well every club in the division already reaches this standard! In other words, this report is about maintaining the status quo, rather than setting new and higher standards which clubs must achieve in order to receive central funding.For example, Tom and Phil’s would be …..

  • Clubs must be placed in the Top 4/5 in the division since professionalism began.
  • Club’s first XV and U21 teams must have also finished in the top 4/5 in their respective divisions. Clubs must also run a youth team and a community development projects.
  • Club’s stadiums must have adequate access for the paying public — either good parking or be within 15 minutes walk of a train station or bus route.
  • The average gate of the club must exceed 5,000 over the last three years.
  • The stadium must hold at least 10,000 spectators — all of whom should be able to watch the game under cover.
  • Each club must demonstrate training facilities — weights rooms, physio therapy equipment
  • Each Club must propose a viable business plan to the Union showing development plans which highlight an improvement in playing facilities, training facilities, expansion in the number of seats, development of family enclosures.

In order for clubs to remain members of the Premier Division ….

  • Certain players must be contracted to the WRU
    (why? For what reason? No explanation nor justification is made for this stance)
  • Clubs must agree that a reduction in the number overseas players would be beneficial for the game in Wales(what does “overseas” mean? The WRU can’t legislate against EU qualified players — this would be illegal and the judge (TW) and the lawyer (SS) on the committee should have recognized that!)
  • The WRU would have an input into the selection of club’s coaches and managers.
  • Clubs must agree to develop a programme for clubs and schools in their area in conjunction with the WRU.
  • The WRU must be allowed to nominate an individual who would sit on the board of directors of each of the professional clubs in the Premier Division.
    (but no reciprocal agreement that clubs would be allowed to see the Union’s financial status and rule on appointments to the professional arm of the sport)

In conclusion, the TWP says that Clubs must present a business plan which clearly sets out their ambitions and addresses the playing issues. This would then be presented to the WRU for selection to take place. Well, it that’s not a franchise system, we don’t know what is!

Structure

Sadly the report poses more questions than it answers in this area.

However, the TWP outlines clearly their view of Super Teams (based on the regional mode) — “there is surely nothing a few, so-called, Super Teams could do that” … Premiership Clubs … “could not do as well if not much better.” “We should not introduce some sort of artificial creation, establishing for example, East Wales or West Wales teams“.

On the key matter of how many clubs should be represented in the top levels of the sport, the TWP fails to offer any recommendation — “constant uncertainly and changing structures within our game have not made this possible“. With the game is in flux, now is precisely the time when we need strong leadership in order to make a clear plan for the future! Now is precisely the time when we need the Union to show some leadership — not renounce its responsibility. “We are not masters of our own destiny“, claim the committee. So what’s the point of the committee?

Whilst referring heavily to the structures of nations such as Australia, New Zealand, Ireland and South Africa, throughout the report no mention is made of either the English or French domestic structure — namely, clubs sponsored either by corporations or wealthy individuals. Whether the Union likes it or not, the French and English structure is nearest that of Wales. Their ostrich approach to planning for the future of the sport shows a failure to grasp the realities of the professional game in Wales. We can only sustain the existing structure because of the levels of investment from benefactors.

The only concrete recommendation the report makes is that there should “at least be a reduction from nine clubs to eight clubs“. Quite how this reduction should be made is not defined by the TWP. “We found it impossible to make a firm recommendation because of the continued uncertainty and fluidity surrounding the future competitive structure of our Premier Clubs.” Thus the committee failed in one of its terms of reference. If the committee deems it necessary to reach a consensus before moving forward, what hope is there of forcing change on an inherently conservative structure?

Whilst factors such as “finance“, “talent” and a “competitive structure” are highlighted as important, these are just vague comments – nothing concrete.

So, to summarize, the TWP is more revealing of the WRU’s incompetence by what it does not say, rather than what it does say.

  • No recommendations on the criteria for selection of clubs in the Premier level.
  • No recommendation on number of games our top players should play.
  • No recommendation on the number of fixtures top clubs should play.

Avoiding divisive recommendations on the top level of the sport, the TWP chooses to focus on the First division and below.

  • There should be no payment to players (from WRU funds) in the First Division and lower.
  • “Grants” would be available from the Union, but there’s no clear indication of how the Union will insist on clubs using this money. “Possible criteria” are highlighted — nothing concrete.
  • There should be play offs (no mention of home and away basis or not) to decide promotion and relegation from the Premiership and First Division.
  • There should be a two up and two down promotion
  • Lower divisions should be structure on a regional basis (but there was no explanation of how teams should cope when they are promoted from a regional based league to a country-wide league).

The question of the appropriate structure of the professional game should be “addressed speedily and dispassionately“, but evidently not by this committee.

The TWP is in favour of cross border competition with English clubs like Bristol, Bath and Gloucester however (point 44). Sadly, only for U21 teams. Quite why it is possible at U21 but not at a senior level, nobody knows.

WRU Mismanagement

Rather than break with tradition and make a create a bold new vision for the game in Wales which embraces professionalism, the TWP instead wants a structure that “suits the Welsh temperament and maximises the innate Welsh talent“. Quite what this nationalistic drivel means is not explained. So far, all the “Welsh temperament” has produced so far is reactionary conservatism and a desire to maintain the status quo.

“Don’t rock the boat, bois, and don’t upset anyone whatever you do!”

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