Patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel
Samuel Johnson (April 7th, 1775)
The CTRL+C+V brigade in the Welsh press have started to call on the WRU to use the threat of ostracisation as a stick to beat players who dare to aspire to play their rugby at a higher level. This sort of institutionalised bullying is usually voiced by the xenophobes who have never lived or worked overseas, suckered in cushy jobs where their careers are secure as long as they tow the party line.
But as we all know, rugby players have short careers that can be brought to an end with the next tackle. Already almost all give up thoughts of a career running parallel to that outside the game – they could be left without a job and marketable skills at any time should injury strike. And now the press wants to pressurise players to take a massive cut in their salaries on the off chance that they will have a run of games playing for Wales?
But to bully the individual – that favourite tall poppy syndrome so loved by the Welsh – is a far easier option than to look at the root cause of the problem. Instead of asking why Wasps can potentially offer Leigh Halfpenny a salary far in excess of that which he could earn in Wales, the pro-establishment view is that we should accuse him of a lack of patriotism if he opts for the cash over the chance of just one more game for Wales (for as we know, at any time it could be his last).
The bottom line is that the press in Wales are so cosy with the WRU, that they fail to even discuss the real issues in Welsh professional rugby as these run to the heart of the back-scratching , nepotistic, insular nature of the sport.
Using the Welsh jersey as a means of blackmailing players is 100% reactive and does not address the root cause of the problem.
The argument runs that Welsh pro-teams lack the funds to retain talent, so they must rely on the WRU to part-fund their top players’ salaries with partial central contracts. But salaries are on the rise, so these contracts will need to become larger and larger. And where does the money come from? Yep, more internationals, which means the national coach wants every more access to players. More access to players by the national coach, means less access to the players by pro-teams’ coaches. No wonder the performances of our pro-teams have suffered. With performances poor, finding new investment is …. well, challenging. So the owners of the pro-teams go cap in hand to the Union for more money. And so the spiral continues.
Because of the WRU’s failure to agree to the offer an Anglo-Welsh league made 15 years ago, Welsh pro-teams are now stuck in a league run purely to produce players for the national squad. The league is so devalued, that it ran concurrently to the recent Rugby World Cup. With such a small population base, TV rights are tiny when compared to those in France and England. And this is where revenues are really growing in the sport – TV money.
Fairly obviously, there is a limit to how many international games can be played in a season, though the Unions are doing their best to keep on flogging that dead horse. How can we break the spiral?
Using the threat of not getting selected for your country
Some in the press advocate using a players desire to represent his country as a (distasteful) way to alleviate this problem – they are too close to the establishment to address the real issue which is how to boost the club game through more investment. There is simply no discussion of this issue in Wales. Vacuous statements calling for our players to return home are made, but there’s no discussion of what’s stopping them. Citing examples of other countries like Australia’s recent changes, rather ignore the point that Australia is haemorrhaging players to the French and English leagues despite the fact that disruption of lugging your family across the globe is a little more disruptive than getting in your car and driving across the Severn to Bath every day.
The answer is the perennial problem in Welsh rugby – namely the WRU’s desire to control all aspects of the game … including the professional clubs.
The rate of growth of the club game in Europe is staggering. Crowds in France are now approaching the level seen in soccer and huge TV deals follow. Meanwhile, in England, across the board, attendances are booming and the popularity of the sport is also attracting record TV deals. And neither countries have enjoyed particularly successful international results of late.
Wales is a tiny country, and raising the drawbridge and ignoring these two markets on our doorstep demonstrates the worst case of myopia. Only through a vibrant, competitive club game can we retain our best players in Wales.
So the solution is for the WRU to focus on making our four teams vibrant, successful commercial businesses. They should be working with the RFU and begging the English clubs for access to their pyramid – even if it means entering the lower levels for there is no future in the present structure. If they can deliver a British League, then suddenly Welsh teams will have access to a much larger market and much larger TV money. Suddenly, it will make long term sense for players to keep playing in Wales. Pro-teams will improve, and success will follow.
With the WRU now (relatively) awash with cash, they should be using these funds to put a deal on the table that delivers a league that gives Welsh pro-clubs access to the English TV market.
A cycle of dependencey
So why isn’t this happening? Whether it’s the blazers at the Union or the press that refuses to ask the challenging questions or even some of the chairman at Welsh pro-teams, they are all stuck in a cycle of dependence that will see the professional sport spiral into oblivion in Wales. Put simply, so many individuals know that they are simply not up to the level of professionalism at English and French clubs. They would need to massively up their game. And we all know that’s the case in our press for it was only the English media who asked the searching questions during the Rogercaust.
But sadly, as we approach the denouement of meaningful professional club rugby in Wales, the press chooses to focus on the international end of the sport. They are putting the cart before the horse. The international calendar – as convoluted and disjointed as it is – is saturated. Growth will come/is coming from the club end of the sport.
But let’s not push for meaningful change in the focus of our game. Let’s instead focus on pressuring individual players. Heaven forbid that as a professional athlete you should want to play in a competitive league, with the chance to win trophies, in front of full stadia, working with real professionals at all levels of the game. That would make you unpatriotic.