As we forecast more than four years ago even before the first ball was kicked in anger, the much hyped Celtic League still remains sponsorless. Over the years, the Union has shown itself manifestly incompetent in running the sport in Wales, running up huge depths and overseeing the decline of playing levels to such an extent that Wales is now firmly second division in rugby terms. So how should we reward this mismanagement of the international game? Simple. Allow the Union to control club rugby as well! Obvious, isn’t it?
We’ve strongly advocated a professional structure separate from the confines of Union control, with clubs given the freedom to market their own player and their own team. Clubs should be allowed to generate the own sponsorship. The clubs’ role is to provide players for the national team – those good at it, should be financially rewarded by the Union, and those who do nothing for the national team should not receive Union handouts. We’ve been saying for years that the Union should stick its nose out of club rugby and instead invest in the grass roots of the sport. Player development should be left to clubs where competition for places will provide the necessary impetus to player development.
But the argument has moved on in the last four years. We always knew that Cardiff Rugby was run for the benefit of ex-players and the privileged few, and now this old boys club is under serious threat from the biggest old boys club of all – the WRU.
Sadly, neither party is interested in the future of the sport – increasing spectator numbers, more sponsors and better facilities. Far from it. The battle ground is over control of the sport – and the Union is winning.
We take a look at the Celtic League and ask the question, who is benefiting from this structure? Supporters? Coaches? Players? Investors? The Media? Or is the league more Ceptic than Celtic?
Local rivalry in Welsh rugby is as old as the hills. The strength of the top teams may have changed – no Neath vs Aberavon and Maesteg vs Bridgend capturing the attention of thousands – but intense rivalry has been one of the traditional strengths of the game in Wales. The “new” buzzword has been intensity – but we’ve had it for decades! What is more intense than a Cardiff-Newport game, or a Neath-Llanelli game? These are the games that have traditionally drawn the biggest crowds. So what’s happened since the start of the Celtic League – are there any significant changes?
Well, the good news for Moffett is that attendances are on the increase*. The Celtic League – although sponsorless and overexposed on our TV sets – has seen attendances in Wales rising consistently from 2001 onwards. It’s probably too early to judge this season, but if we plug in the averages, the results are clear – average attendance is now approaching six thousand (not so far from Moffett’s target of 8,000). Last season, Celtic League attendances in Wales approached a quarter of a million. So everything’s rosy? Right? Well, not quite.
Looking in more detail, the biggest growth in attendance has been the stand alone kings – Llanelli. Average gates have more than doubled between 2001-2 and this season – now standing at an average of over 7,200. In fact, ALL the growth in attendances has been at the home of our Turkish brothers.
At CAP, attendance has fallen from an average of just under 6,000 to 4,500.
Rodney Parade has seen a similar dip in average attendance – though there are signs that the disenfranchised are returning in an effort to reclaim their club from the hands of Moffett. What about that model of regionalism – the Ospreys? Well, two into one doesn’t really go, and they’ve also lost around a thousand supporters a home game from when they operated as two separate teams. But the biggest loss of spectators (of course) is as a result of Moffett’s demolition job on Pontypridd and to a lesser extent Bridgend. During the 2001-2 season, an average of 6,000 spectators was watching these two clubs. Inevitably, when they merged, the figure dropped to less than 3,000.
And the conclusion to all these facts and figures?
Rationalisation at the top of the sport was much needed, but Moffett’s tactics have alienated thousands of Welsh rugby supporters, and driven them away from the game. Where are these missing thousands? Will the remaining professional clubs be able to entice these fans to return to the professional sport? The figures suggest otherwise – with the negligible gates at the Brewery Field, and the missing thousands who should be supporting the Ospreys.
These missing supporters have little identification with the new clubs. Franchises were the obvious solution, but the WRU missed the chance to make the system open and fair – smoke filled rooms and dodgy deals are the preferred solution leading to unsubstantiated rumours alleging all sort of dirty dealings. Clubs used to represent your community – your home town or city. It was the club you first supported as a child with your father …. an identification that grew up over years and decades. Now, that very same club has either disappeared, or been taken away by the Union. There is no identification with a club born out of a bad marketing dream – as a result, supporters lose their loyalty, and there is no passion for the club. No passion in the stands matched by no passion on the pitch and this removes that intensity which set us ahead of the competition.
The away fans have gone from the game and that special buzz that stood Wales aside from the dry and insipid atmosphere of English rugby are gone. There is no banter, no sense of rivalry, no atmosphere, and yes that word again, the “intensity” of parochial rivalry is gone. A total lack of occasion diminishes the experience of watching rugby and reduces it to pantomime. No pyramid in the sport means no competition for places in Europe, no reward for excellence (clubs not rewarded for producing top players and not penalised for failing to qualify for Europe), and no relegation. A guaranteed place in Europe is bad for the sport.
In appointing Ruddock, the WRU sent a clear message out to Welsh club rugby. Vocal for many years in his support of the Irish system of Union-control, Ruddock was the perfect appointment for the WRU and he quickly began his constant assault in the media with his mantra of Union-controlled “regionalism” (whatever that means). Gareth Jenkins – the most successful and skilful coach in Welsh rugby with a proven record of success – never stood a chance of the job. He is a club man, Llanelli through and through, and would never support the increased control by the Union over the sport.
With the demise of the Warriors, Jenkins was further cut out – deprived of a chance to strengthen his ageing squad by the politics of the Union. All this is never out in the open never open to public scrutiny and only open to the charge of underhand tactics.
So is this Celtic League good for our coaches? Well, one thing is for sure, the Union-controlled Irish structure has lost at least two class coaches in recent season – Alan Solomons and Warren Gatland. Why did they leave? Could it be that they wanted more control over their charges and wanted to coach the way they wanted to? What new excellent fresh coaches have joined the Celtic set up? Uhm ….. none. And who would want to? Even Irish chief executives are complaining about a lack of support from the IRU.
Coaches can’t chose their own squads – Union interference in the running of the clubs means that squads will now be limited to two foreigners. Is that a good thing? What we need in Wales are experienced foreigners who can have an educational influence on Welsh players. Tiechmann and Percy have been/were excellent additions to the game, boosting interest and crowds as well as acting as role models. Who can forget the influence of Peter Muller at Cardiff? Now we have “open warfare” by the Union against “foreigners” – hardly an atmosphere conducive to attracting the best. The result is that more and more foreigners are signed as cheap solutions to budgeting problems.
Coaches have no guarantee that players are available – Ruddock’s control over Welsh squad players causes an intolerable disruption for club coaches. How can Dai Young plan his training sessions when he doesn’t know how many players will be there and how many will be with Ruddock? It wouldn’t be so bad if the Welsh coach had a positive influence on players, but for Cardiff in recent season we’ve seen players confidence ruined by the mismanagement of Henry and Hanson.
Coaches have no guarantee that the players in their squad actually want to be there. Gareth Williams was told to play for Cardiff – Alfie was told not to and we can only speculate about Sidoli who clearly looks like he wants to be somewhere else. Players are already being “forced” to play where they don’t want to. We already have central control and central contracts in all but name.
Is this structure good for player development? Central control means there’s little identification with the club they are forced to play for. The days when players saw clubs as their own – playing for their home town or city – are fast disappearing. The Union is trying to replace this sense of identity with a circus of mercenaries drifting around from one allocated club to another. They can no longer chose which club they want to play for.
The Celtic League is fast turning into a graduation school for the Zurich Premiership and French Leagues. Stephen Jones, Alfie, Gareth Llewellyn, Gary Powell(!), Richard Parks, Christian Loader, Darren Morris and Colin Charvis are all playing “overseas” with the “foreigners”. When the stars of our game leave, who attracts youngsters to the sport? With Rhys William’s and Jamie Robinson’s contracts coming to an end, will these players chose to stay in WRU-controlled Welsh club rugby?
There is now no incentive for private capital or benefactors to invest in the sport. Moffett and his chums have already alienated two of the biggest inventors in recent times – Leighton Samuel and Buy As You View – and he’s now working on forcing another investor away (Tony Brown). For Moffett to feed Thomson House with more propaganda about the dangers of losing Welsh stars overseas is frankly ridiculous, when he – almost single handily – bullied Samuel (and his stadium investments and best pitch in Wales) out of the sport. What have you done to increase funding for the sport, Dai?
Forcing out investors like Marcus Russell and Leighton Samuel is frankly criminal – the sport in Wales is desperate for more funds to compete with the Irish, English and French and by putting control in front of development, the WRU is only further impoverishing the sport.
This is ALL about control. If it was about developing the sport, where is the extra money that a Chief Executive is supposed to generate for the sport? Recently, Moffett secured a rumoured £70,000 increase in his salary – not so dissimilar to the £125,000 a year he cut from the sport when he got rid of the A team. The Union are well on the way to destroying great club names like Newport and Cardiff – completely marginalising all support in a concerted effort to remove any barrier to their total control.
What does “together” mean? “Together” for those who agree with you, and stuff those who want to invest in the sport?
No – Moffett set out with an idea in his mind (mainly taken from his experiences in New Zealand) and has steamrollered it through. He has taken no account of local culture and circumstances. His dogmatic approach has alienated those whose interest in Welsh rugby does not come from a career move, but comes from a passion that they will take to their grave – long after Moffett has left for his next job.
The media gravey train in Wales is firmly behind the Union. The Union feeds the media with wall to wall coverage on the television, and a press office in Thomson House fed daily with the party line. In turn, the media is assured of the exposure it craves and a chance to hob nob with Moffett’s cronies. But of course the ultimate irony is that as a direct result of Moffett’s refusal to include Samuel in his plans for the future of the game, European Cup TV revenue will actually fall this season.
Where have all the real journalists gone? Where is the investigative reporting into what happened to the Warriors? Why are no questions asked about the secrecy surrounding WRU holdings in rugby infrastructure in Wales? Doesn’t the media feel it should ask why investors in the sport – Sameul, Russell and now Brown – are being driven away precisely when the Union has such huge debts and has a responsibility to develop the sport in Wales?
Sure the TV people are happy. Viewing figures keep them in the limelight and they can justify the ridiculous kick off times by claiming they are investing in the sport. But at what cost? Kick off times keep the opinionated armchair fans who don’t invest in Welsh rugby (no season tickets, no match tickets, no merchandising) happy, but discourages attendances (as the facts show).
The Celtic League has provided the perfect platform for the SRU and the WRU to assert their control over top clubs in their countries. And the results in Scotland should be a warning for us all. North of the border, the sport is dying on its knees. Their Union-controlled solution has been a disaster as attendances fall off a cliff. Their three professional clubs roam from one soulless empty stadium to another, playing out defeat after defeat. The Union’s only remedy is to search the world for anyone with a Scottish aunt in a desperate attempt at a short term fix. There is no partnership with local clubs, and no investment from local benefactors.
In Wales, the megalomaniac’s rule – control at all costs and the alienation of thousands of supporters and private investors. Far from increasing the popularity and inclusively of the sport, the WRU is driving people away. Perhaps most importantly, it is also driving away our star players. By alienating non-Union funding, the limited resources mean our best players will leave Wales. And the worse thing of all is that the Union doesn’t care! Far from it! It actively rewards those who leave by giving one the captaincy of a country he no longer lives in!