Category Archives: International Rugby

Comments on the international game

The Six Nations – only half-a-competition

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It’s that time of year again when club competitions are just beginning to take off and gather some momentum, the international game gate crashes the party and rips out the guts of squads rendering fixtures a lottery.

If your team is in a country where teams are plentiful, squads heavy with competition for places and bank accounts full and ready to spend money on southern hemisphere players looking to earn some cash, then you may feel the pain less than others. It also helps if you’re team is in a league of 14 others – populated by just the right saturation of “indigenous” participants.

However, if you’re a Celt, you’re in trouble. Squads are decimated, and even if national coaches deign to release players for club games, coaches have very little time to prepare and integrate these “here-today, gone-tomorrow” players. It takes some sort of organisational wizardry for a squad to be shorn of 20 or 30 players and still function. No wonder the Pro12 is the weakest of the three professional leagues in Europe – it’s only half a competition.

This season has seen the Pro12 start during the World Cup. Yes folks, that’s right, during the World Cup. So what we’re left with is basically a second XV competition. Of course it’s a great leveller – those who supply the bulk of the international squad suddenly find themselves facing teams like Connacht, or Newport Gwent Dragons who largely remain untouched by the ravages of the Six Nations.

So why is this rape and pillage of the club game allowed to continue? In the case of Ireland, the answer is simple – there’s only one employer, and he who pays the piper calls the tune. In the case of Wales, it’s more complex – a sort of mass kamikaze, group-think, lemmings racing towards the cliff.

Those propping up the pro-game in Wales want cash from the Welsh Rugby Union to keep funding their squads, and there’s little vision on show to indicate that they can see beyond the end of the next Six Nations-funded cheque. The Pro12 is a bit of a joke competition – derisory TV money from Ireland and an apathetic Welsh public that would much rather pay to see club competition against the English. It’s underfunded, poorly promoted, riven by gerrymandering and devalued by international call-ups. So the club owners in Wales need more money (no sign of it coming from the Pro12). So they are happy to support a never-ending stream of Team Wales fundraising games, which in turn weaken the Pro12 and the cycle continues. You get the picture.

If you’re a fan of club rugby, then this shambolic mess is crying out for some visionary leadership and someone willing to upturn the apple cart and bring some order to a fragmented northern hemisphere season that is strangling opportunities for faster growth.

Rugby players are athletes, and athletes are coached to peak at key events. If you’re planning for the Olympics, you will focus on building your fitness levels to maximum effect for that competition. What athlete could cope with “season” peaks dotted randomly around the calendar. If the international games is supposed to be the peak of the sport, why are international competitions held a few months after the season starts and then again slap, bang in the middle of the season? Shouldn’t they be at the end of the season – giving players a target to reach peak fitness and performance, building gradually throughout the season?

An overhaul of the international game is desperately needed. The half-cock Six Nations (usually decided by the nature of the draw as only half the fixtures are played) should be held at the end of the season – a focus for players to reach their pinnacle performance after domestic cup finals. And while we’re at it, what are the Italians doing in this competition? They should be dropped and a relegation play off for the bottom team introduced to break down the doors of the cosy closed shop. Play a Five Nations competition home and away and you have eight weekends to focus on. Add to that two more International Games (tours or other “fund-raisers” if you must) and the top of the pyramid has 10 international games a season. Enough. Abandon the Autumn Internationals (which only serve to fund Southern Hemisphere coffers) and suddenly the season is taking shape.

Start with domestic competitions and then move to the Europe-wide tournament. End the season with the international game. The international game is the pinnacle, with players peaking their performance for the end of the season. The club game is free to develop and gain momentum without losing key players and rendering many results a lottery.

Why is this obvious solution so difficult to implement? Well, at the root of the problem is the fatal error of placing tradition above the development of the game. With the blazers in charge, the international game still gets to do pretty much as it likes, with the club game expected to fall into line. The closed-shop at the top end of the sport largely excludes any opportunity for tier 2 teams to break the stranglehold. And now with the increasing influence of TV money, the April-May-June period already contains a congested sporting calendar, so it’ll be a difficult sell to Murdoch and co..

So any change to this mess is not going to come from the blazers. It has to come from the club game – by far the better attended and faster growing section of the game. We can only hope that when club owners in France and England finally wake up to the potential of the sport and take control, that they will do a better job of developing the game than those Unions who are so averse to change.

Putting the cart before the horse

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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.

downward spiralThe 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 solution

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.

upward spiralSo 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.

Rugby in Japan

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On 16th September, Tier 2 Rugby wrote on excellent article on Japanese Rugby. Full of insight into the professional arm of the sport, it highlighted a number of reasons why Eddie Jones decided to part company with the JRFU. But Tom felt the analysis was a little too westerner-centric, didn’t explain why certain conditions exist in the sport in Japan and offered solutions which were overtly “just-do-it-like-we-do-in-the-west”, ignoring the local cultural context. Here’s his response.

One of the big successes at this year’s Rugby World Cup has been the rise of Japan. Under the excellent tutelage of Eddie Jones (and ably supported by Marc dal Maso, Leigh Jones and Steve Borthwick), the Brave Blossoms went notched up as many victories as did Wales – although unlike Wales, they actually defeated one of the big three SANZAR nations. Were it not for a schedule that favoured Scotland, they could well have qualified to play Australia in a quarter final.

But despite this success, Eddie Jones’ frustration with a lack of change in Japanese rugby reached such a level that he decided not to renew his contract and is now moving to new pastures. How can this happen? How can someone who has achieved so much and is so well-respected both in Japan and around the world quit the role at the peak of his popularity?

The answer lies in the structure of the game in Japan.

A massive player base

Japan has one of the largest rugby-playing populations in the world. There are 3,000 plus teams in the country with a playing population of 120,000. Typically, players begin to learn the sport from an early age as young as five or six at the many rugby schools dotted around the major cities. From there, they join the school network and then on to Univeristy. The best players typically receive some sort of scholarship from rugby-playing private Universities and these players can then be recruited by Japan’s largest corporations who fund the pinnacle of the sport in Japan – the Top League.

Typical of the Japanese education model, competition is tough. Although sport falls someway down the pecking order in Japan, to reach the peak you have to show total dedication and many hours application. But the path is narrow – for those who don’t play rugby at high school, it’s difficult to learn the game at University. And of course, for those who don’t enter University, there’s a big gap.

One’s pedigree is a prized asset in Japan, and those who have watched Japanese rugby from the stands know that on the sheet of paper that passes for a program that is handed out before the game, players names are listed with the University they attended and even their high school. It’s rare to see a player at the top level who is not a graduate. And when you consider that only 45% of the Japanese population are graduates, you can see the wastage in the system.

Takashi Sato is a 24 year old scrum half who plays for Kobe Steel. This is his profile page on the club’s web site. He started playing rugby from the age of 8 at Neyagawa – a well known club in the north of Osaka. His junior high school was Sada, again in Osaka. Then moved to Tokai Gyosei (a feeder for high school for Tokai University) and then finally to Doshisha Univeristy – one of the top rugby playing universities in the country. His club publish these details for each player in their squad.

Further complications arise around which university and which high school players attend. There is still a culture in Japan that dictates that it is not possible to excel at sport and academically – sport is seen as somewhat frivolous. So the better academic institutions typically either do not possess a strong sporting culture, or if they do, the two paths are very segregated. You have a choice, study hard and make a successful career or “play” rugby. You won’t find an international rugby player who is a qualified doctor.

Town-based teams very much sit outside this pyramid, and as such, it’s rare that players can move from traditional clubs into the professional leagues. It’s a narrow path – go to a rugby-playing high school, secure a scholarship to a private university who play rugby and then get recruited by a company to play in their company team.

University Rugby

There are two University leagues in Japan – one base in the east and the other in the west. In the Eastern Japan Kansai League (based around Osaka-Kobe-Kyoto-Nara), there are seven leagues containing 48 teams. Those Universities at the top of those leagues recruit the better players from high school, and the numbers involved are staggering. Many of the top University teams in Western Japan have player numbers in the hundreds. But there is simply no infrastructure to cope with these sort of playing numbers. Coaches are largely volunteers, even if the top Universities are recruiting the better coaches (Wayne Shelford enjoyed a stint at Ritsumeikan Univeristy). Despite a huge number of pitches the gap between an under-coached and ill-prepared elite and the rest is wide even within these large University clubs. With an over-concentration of talent in certain universities – many talented players or late developers rarely see a coach and revert to playing rugby merely for fun where results are not important. At second tier universities, facilities are chronically underfunded. Only a strong network of ex-players keeps these clubs afloat – sponsoring everything from weight training equipment to jerseys and training camps.

Company Teams in Japan

An effort has been made to add a geographical spread to rugby in Japan, but teams are still based around the corporate model. Here’s one example of how the systems works. A head of one of Japan’s major manufacturing companies was approached by the head of the JRFU and encouraged to increase investment in his company’s rugby team. New training facilities were built and the player budget increased (to attract top players from overseas). Why do companies invest in rugby in Japan? It is seen as partly marketing, partly something for employees to get behind and associate with and partly social responsibility. All this, however, has nothing to do with creating a pyramid from which international quality players will emerge.

There are a number of misconceptions around the indigenous players who are recruited by these companies from University. On the positive side, players have a strong chance of a career after rugby if they stay loyal to their company. The old “employee for life” system is dying out – despite what the out-of-date Western media will tell you. But nevertheless, when players careers are so relatively short, and can be ended with one tackle, having the security of stable employment is something those on the fringes of the sport would very much appreciate.

However, the idea that these players are semi-professional is misleading. They train twice a day, and although they do spend time at the office, the work they do is trivial in nature compared to more career-minded employees. “Working” at the marketing department means time spent in the marketing department, whereas professional players in the UK may spend an equal amount of time at the local Starbucks.

Traditional Club rugby

Japan’s multi-layed system also includes player who play for the love of the game for local town or city based teams. One of these is Okayama Rugby Football Club. Founded in 1953, they’re a club with 57 players, practicing once a week with a game on a Sunday. They have close links with local schools and also run a senior’s team. You could say that they are a typical rugby club that we would see in any Tier 1 country. They’ll pick up players who don’t travel the narrow path to contracts with the corporate teams and select players of all ages – perhaps those who don’t follow the university route but still love the sport. Hang on a minute, aren’t things supposed to be different in Japan?

Problems with this system

There is a horrendous waste of resources in that capable players who fall outside this narrow path have no way to break into what is essentially a ring-fenced, closed shop. Sadly, coaching standards are very low and receive low respect and priority. Despite being very reliant on High School and University coaches, the JRFU has no influence on who is recruited. An accreditation system has been created, but it falls a long way behind those in more developed countries. There is even a real possibility of graduates who do reach company teams actually seeing a fall in the standard of coaching.

But the money swilling around corporate Japan is huge. Vast salaries are paid to imported (usually) southern hemisphere players who play a limited number of games. With no pyramid in place between the corporate game and younger players, the scope to improve on skills is limited. There is no meaningful trickle down effect. With their huge salaries, it could be argued that these foreigners are a real drain on a system that desperately needs funding at the lower levels.

Cultural Differences

To western eyes, many facets of Japanese education seem strange or even outright bizarre. But from Japanese eyes, some of the practices in Western education are sloppy, lightweight and frivolous.

One of the many strengths of Japanese culture is the belief in total dedication to one’s path in life – make your choice and work to become the best you possibly can at this. This flows through into their approach to sport. So training can be an all-consuming affair from a young age. Rather than criticise this approach as limiting those who want to switch sport as they mature, shouldn’t we really be asking the question that given this dedication, why isn’t the system producing top class players? The playing numbers are huge – unlike tiny countries like New Zealand – so it really isn’t a numbers game. The issue is what is being coached – not how many are receiving the coaching.

The counterargument to the proposition that players like Courtney Lawes (basketball) or Alex Cuthbert (VIIs) crossing from other sports is a good thing, is to imagine how good a player they would be if they had the total dedication from an early age that is widespread in Japan.

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Poor facilities

So with so much dedication on show from Japan’s young rugby players, why doesn’t this transfer to success on the international stage?

Among the many criticisms Eddie Jones made of the sport in Japan, two in particular are worth looking at in more detail. The repetitive nature of coaching in junior high school was described as mundane and offering little variety. A second criticism (this time of players at the higher level of the sport) was of poor tackling skills. Both these issues have their roots in dreadful facilities.

Tenri is a city just outside Osaka in Western Japan. It is located in the prefecture of Nara, one of Japan’s ancient capitals and contains one of the nations top rugby schools. From elementary to high school right through to University, there is pathway for privately educated students to excel – and at Tenri, rugby is in the blood. This year, the team will complete in the 95th National High School Championship. Many of these high school games are televised – how many tier one countries can claim to show high school rugby on terestrial television?

One would expect such an institution such as this to possess some of the best facilities around. But this is far from the case. Pitches at lower levels in Japan are typically compacted dirt, inter sprinkled with grit. In the baking heat of the Japanese summer, these turn to concrete. In autumn when the typhoons visit, they can turn into mud-baths. Players regularly suffer serious abrasions to the skin, and in the summer months, these can become infected. Coaching a contact sport on these grounds is highly challenging. It’s really no wonder that the safe option is to choose repetitive passing drills.

In Japan’s densely populated cities, even finding a grass pitch is a challenge. Opportunities for joint practice sessions with corporate teams offer the possibility of access to better training facilities, but with the strict seniority system in Japan, games between Universities and company teams are a rare occurrence.

JRFU position

The JRFU recognises the challenge they face in Japan and they have a plan. Despite the recent upsurge in popularity as a result of success in England, there has been a long term decline in the popularity of the sport in the traditional base at Univeristy level. Faced with an impenetrable mass media the JRFU has struggle to get air time – the rise of soccer and the pre-eminence of baseball has proved an insurmountable barrier. Don’t be fooled by the wealth of the corporate teams, a lack of investment has seen clubs at all levels struggle. A lack of presence at youth level, in VIIs and the women’s game is chronic.

The JRFU has a strategic plan to drive the game forward in time for the next rugby world cup. Two main targets have been set

Target 1: Aware of the need to widen the historically narrow pipeline described above, the JRFU will focuss on community sports clubs, increasing the spread of tag rugby and the better utilisation of existing sporting facilities. They’ve set a target to increase participation by 75,000 (instituting a “200,000 campaign”).

Target 2: They aim to increase the number of spectators of the domestic Top League to 1.4 million by 2019 – a figure which would compare favourably to the cumulative attendances of Europe’s Rugby Champions Cup. This they hope to achieve through a number of branding and marketing initiatives (though ironically, their best promotional efforts have been achieved by the departing Eddie Jones and his team). One excellent initiative is that they will begin to build a database of all coaches, referees and players in an effort to understand the scope of the sport.

Challenges for the JRFU

The existing fragmented system in Japan is not conducive to producing a winning international team. Change is needed, but Japan doesn’t do dramatic change very well. And if anything, things are about to get worse.

The imposition of a Super Rugby franchise on the existing structure will create more of a circus than a development tool for the national side. The franchise won’t even play all its games in Japan, let alone create any links with local talent factories. Corporate owners will see it as competition, and already we’ve seen too many players who aspire to playing at a higher level ignoring the local franchise and moving overseas. It has all the makings of an approaching failure.

How to develop the game in Japan?

Although one could argue that it is not the job of the National Coach to create a plan for revolutionising the structure of the sport in Japan, one could also counter-argue who would know better than the national coach? Whilst we’ll probably never know what went on behind closed doors between Eddie Jones and the top echelons of the Japanese Rugby Football Union, it’s a real shame that he didn’t publicise what he wanted before walking away from the job. There’s others he could learn from in this respect.

In the absence of proposals from Eddie Jones, here’s three ideas that will hopefully stimulate some thinking.

1

Investment is desperately needed in facilities at the local level – and that mostly means Desso-type “GrassMaster” pitches. (In fact, this is already happening, though not necessarily from funds originating from the JRFU.) As mentioned above, the JRFU is working on an accreditation system for coaches, but imagine how successful this could have been if the official manual was written by Eddie Jones.

2

The sport needs to learn from the success of soccer in Japan which started off as a company-based league before finally moving to the J-League – a city-based competition.

3

The JRFU – working with the corporate sector – needs to build centres of excellence around regional teams and develop a pathway for all players, regardless of their age or academic pathway. These new teams should be encouraged to create links with local schools, universities and other corporations. JRFU needs to see these teams at the top of the pyramid, with selection and contracts offered to players irrespective of age.

Achieving this is a massive challenge for the JRFU and they will need all their years of experience and links with industry to make this happen.

The Super Rugby Franchise is a foreign creation by well-meaning people who really don’t understand the structure of the game in Japan and what needs to happen to encourage development. Without doubt, outside influence will help force change in Japan – as it has done throughout history. But this franchise is not the answer and could prove to be a further dangerous drain on funds. The answer is local, inclusive development, funded by rich corporations investing in the community.

But what is certainly beyond discussion, is that Japanese rugby will be all the poorer for that fact that Eddie Jones won’t be around to oversee or have an input into these or any other changes.

Tom was one of those atrocious Univeristy coaches in Japan where he lived for over four years. Although he did his best to avoid long and tedious sessions, some of his ex-players are disappointed that he didn’t apply the same principles to his post-match debriefings.

Dogma or Financial Common Sense?

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The present stand off in Welsh rugby seems to be about what freedoms and rights four individual, privately owned, businesses have under the regulations of the IRB and the WRU. There is an enormous legal battle involved therein which is beyond the wit of most men, certainly me. My hope is that this dispute does reach the courts because we need rugby to modernise across Europe, in line with the law of our Continent and in line with modern business practices.

We have the owner of Toulon looking to challenge the rights of the IRB (especially Regulation 9 about player release for international windows and more) in the European Courts, so a challenge within the Courts of England and Wales as to whether Unions can block their clubs from playing wherever they like will be an interesting addition to that challenge.

However, we must hope that both parties in Wales have the same goal and that goal must be to have four strong professional teams who are able to compete on a cross border basis, aiming to compete with the much financially stronger French. If both sides have that goal then the difference is clearly on how to achieve it.

The Regions clearly want to choose the competitions they play in and to negotiate their own broadcast contracts. The reason for this is entirely obvious: clubs in France and England have this ability already and are significantly more successful in bringing in revenue than are the Celtic Unions. The figures prove this: the Pro12’s TV revenue for next season is (potentially, based on participation) about £9.5m a year across 10 teams. The French contract is approximately £60m across 14 teams, the English contract is approximately £27m across 12 teams.

Therefore, it is quite obvious as to why RRW want a piece of the English pie and not the Celtic pie. It is also reported that should there be an Anglo-Welsh league next season then that would be worth £4m a year to the RRW teams.

On top of that, we have on the table an offer for a Rugby Champions Cup which is to be broadcast by BT Sport and to be run by the participating clubs. This, according to RRW, is worth £1m more per year per team than the offer for a continuation of the Union controlled ERC tournament.

So, it is all about the money. And why not? This is professional sport, after all. The recent investigation into Welsh rugby by PWC indicated that the RRW teams must find ways to increase their income and this is exactly what they have done.

Now doesn’t this seem all well and good? Why would a Union have an issue with its member clubs acting this way as it is exactly how the French and English clubs act?

Well, the answer seems to be control. It seems as though the WRU is reluctant to allow the clubs to act that way as, under the Agreement they work to at the moment, all of the above work (competition choice and broadcast contract negotiation) is undertaken by the WRU. The easy dig at that belief is to note that the Unions have performed pretty poorly at both of those tasks as the Pro12 is neither popular with supporters nor financially attractive to broadcasters.

So is it just dogma that is preventing the Union allowing RRW to choose its own competitions and negotiate its own TV deals? Well, there are a few straw men arguments that go alongside this which must be considered. The first is that allowing RRW to act in this way will somehow undermine the amateur game in Wales or cause it financial difficulties. This is an argument that I find utterly alien as I don’t see how the amateur clubs are affected by whether the Ospreys play Leinster or Leicester. I’ve never seen a written coherent prose for this argument but it is often raised. The financial side of the concern is simply addressed by the WRU issuing a “tax” of a small percentage on any competition income generated by RRW.

The next straw man argument is that, by wishing to negotiate their own deals, RRW want to control the entire game in Wales. This is a particularly crazy argument as RRW teams have a difficult enough task running their own business so quite why they’d want to make that more difficult by being a controlling influence over the amateur game is beyond me. There is the thought that the RRW teams will want to be more involved in the pyramid of talent production but surely the only dissenting voices to that idea will be those at risk of losing their position of local influence.

The biggest straw man argument is that allowing RRW this freedom will negatively affect the Six Nations. This is a particularly large pile of nonsense. The simple truth is that the French have the purchasing power to attract whichever players they want, with the English getting the next best. This is already in place, it is happening and it will happen for years to come as both the English and French leagues have broadcast contracts in place for years to continue this trend.

Therefore, the best players from Ireland and Scotland will leave their countries regardless of whether RRW negotiate their own deals or not. The biggest risk to the Six Nations is the Toulon challenge of the IRB Regulation 9, not whether the Ospreys can raise their salary cap from £3.5m a year to £5m.

The only real argument to this issue is that the WRU signed up to a Pro12 contract which has a three year rolling notice term that is yet to be announced. There could be a significant charge to the WRU for not fulfilling its obligations to enter its best teams into the competition. However, the WRU is no position to do this because, if the RRW teams go rogue, it will need to enter its own teams which will clearly be inferior. So the other Unions (mostly the IRFU and SRU, as the Italians may leave the league anyway) choose to sue then the WRU seems powerless to prevent it. Alternatively, the WRU could back an AW league on the proviso that RRW teams play out the three remaining years of that Pro12 contract in return.

The benefit of this could be that the Welsh Premiership is freed of the clubs which own the regions, allowing that tier to be truly independent and competitive, whilst the RRW teams have a guaranteed “A” competition in the Pro12 so that talent is given game time.

Wales has already exported too much talent. There are already too many Welsh qualified players playing outside of Wales. If RRW ploughing their own furrow can both bring most of those players back whilst keeping most of our better players (noting that the French will always have the pick) then this is only a good thing for Welsh rugby.

So unless the WRU can negotiate contracts of the value that RRW are already being offered, their resistance to RRW acting this way can only be because of dogma, because of fear for the loss of their influence, because of the loss of £10m+ from the company turnover. There can be no other sensible defence.

For me, all parties benefit if RRW goes its own way. The WRU will be able to renegotiate an Agreement for player release rather than lose that ability altogether, more money will come into the game for the WRU to spend on its amateur arm and it will spend less time administering its professional arm. It’s only dogma and personality preventing this.

Welsh Internationals – A waste of money?

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Two weeks away from the start of the season, and the question on many Cardiff supporter’s lips is, “How many games will our stars to play for the Blue Blacks this season?”

The Australians feel no need for warm up internationals, but in a desperate drive to bleed every last pound from the pockets of Welsh supporters, the WRU is cramming in as many meaningless internationals as it can. Given Hansen’s first selection against Ireland, he himself has admitted that he can’t pick his best team. These aren’t warm up games, they’re revenue generators for the Union. Hansen will name his squad of 30 on the 5th September and from the 30th August to Wales’ first game against Canada on 12th October, the players will be allowed to “rest”.

Wales’ last pool game is against New Zealand on Sunday 2nd November, and as runners up in Pool D, they are likely to face Australia on November 9th.

There is an agreement in place between Hansen and Wales’ professional clubs, that the top players are likely to be out for three weeks following this game, which means a rest for Martyn Williams, Iestyn Harris and possibly Rhys Williams and Jamie Robinson until Sunday 30th November. This would mean the first game these play for Cardiff could be the first European game against Sale on December 5th AT THE EARLIEST!!

Then comes the Six Nations.

With the WRU likely to ban players from playing for their clubs during the Six Nations, between February 7th and April 3rd, we’re unlikely to see Cardiff’s Welsh internationals turn out for the Blue Blacks.

It sure makes you wonder whether its worth having a Welsh international on your books when they simply don’t play sufficient games for their clubs to justify their salaries.

So how many Celtic League games will Cardiff’s Welsh internationals play this season? Well, there’s the game at the end of December against Pontybonty, and a further two in May meaning a maximum of three!!! All rather farsical! Don’t expect the club or the Union (or their lackies in the press) to broadcast this fact, but how can they expect us to pay for season tickets when we don’t get to see the best players at the club?

Munster have splashed out on Cullen, Jones Hughes and a Kiwi prop to name just three. And no wonder. They’ve realised that if the Unions are going to stop the clubs fielding their best XVs, the need to recruit “overseas” stars to attract supporters through the turnstiles.

But as we all know, this can’t last.

Expect an increasing number of players to retire from international rugby to concentrate on the more lucrative and stable club game. To our benefit, one of those is Crazy – who will now hopefully enjoy an injury-free season in Blue and Black.

The Union is cutting money to the clubs, but depriving the clubs of their prime assets. Time to offload the internationals?

Cardiff’s 10 Welsh Squad Players ….
Rhys Williams, Craig Morgan, Tom Shanklin, Jamie Robinson, Iestyn Harris, Nick Robinson, Ryan Powell, Ben Evans, Martyn Williams, Robin Sowden-Taylor

 

The Structure of the Game in Wales

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The Rugby Football Union

Founded: 1871
President: Jeff Addison
Number of clubs: 2,049
Number of players: 167,000

Welsh rugby needs to ask itself some serious questions about its future. Do we want to produce clubs that can compete with the best in Europe? Or are we happy to play out our local rivalries in some sort of vacuum – isolated from the rest of the rugby playing world? If the former is our target, we need to ensure that these clubs have world class facilities – for the development of both players and a growing spectator base. If we want our players to stay in Wales, we need to offer them packages that encourage them to do so. All this costs money. Who pays? Fortunately, we have a small number of individuals who are willing to make substantial investment in our game, but we also have a Union responsible for the game in this country.

Welsh Rugby Union

Founded: 1881
President : Sir Tasker Watkins
Number of clubs: 372
Number of players: 18,340

Caerphilly are one of the few clubs at the top end of the sport in Wales who have no rich backer and run their business on a sound financial footing. Caerphilly recently conceded almost 100 points to one of England’s top five teams.

The message is therefore clear, if we don’t limit the number of professional clubs in Wales, we cannot look forward to success for our clubs in Europe. We must therefore use Union money and private investors money to create financially stable businesses (clubs) which can provide the environment for our game to flourish.

The issue is, how many players/clubs can Wales’ limited resources support? Judging from recent cross border competition results, its clear that even those who say the figure should be as few as six will find it difficult to justify their position.

Who are the Welsh sugar daddies?
• Tony Brown (Newport)
• Leighton Samuel (Bridgend)
• Peter Thomas (Cardiff)
• Huw Evans (Llanelli)
• Marcus Russell (Ebbw Vale)
• Robert Davies (Swansea)

In this editorial we will discuss how the failure of the union to provide a coherent commercial structure at the top end of the sport is discouraging the investment we need in centres of excellence. We will look at the missed opportunities of recent years and how things seem to have gone full circle.

The top level of the sport is basically divided into two camps – those funded by individuals or groups of individuals, and those funded by the Union. Most clubs assets are their players – often subsidized by the Union. Every club in Wales is in a perilous financial state with players earning grossly inflated wages (and good luck to them) topped up by a Union insisting on the short termism of propping up a failing system by money they don’t have.

The Union is in deep financial crisis – and recently asked for more money to cope with the horrendous costs of building a new stadium. The top level of the sport remains sponsorless – individual clubs have nominal jersey sponsorship deals, but the leagues – both Welsh-Scottish and Celtic – are unsponsored. Even the domestic cup competition is unsponsored. Television deals exist with the provincial companies, but there is no access to Sky’s riches and no access to the higher viewing figures that British exposure guarantees.

There is a true spirit of jealousy and bitterness running throughout the sport – those without rich backers surviving thanks to Union investment, cry foul at the investors insisting on influence, whilst those with backers are frustrated by the wasted resources in the sport and the interference of the Union.

On the pitch, the national team is playing with a total lack of cohesion and confidence – mirroring the structure of the domestic sport. They are losing – and will continue to lose heavily in the next Six Nations. There is insufficient competition for places at the national level born out of a lack of competition for places at club level. Too many players are selected to play each week because their club sqaud is too small to force constant improvement in their performance.

Amateurism in Wales vs Professionalism in England

Inequalities in the professional sport of rugby union can be traced back to the RFU’s Sky deal – first signed over five years ago. It was the first sign for Welsh rugby of how far economically it was set to suffer at the hands of the (arrogant) administrators at the RFU – its wealthy neighbour.

The Sky deal set would pay the RFU £87.5m over five years for live coverage of all England home internationals. At the same time, Sky offered a package to the Celtic nations – reflecting the commercial worth of the sport in these countries.

How much money do clubs get from their Unions?
• Scotland – £1.8m
• Ireland – £1.8m
• England – £2.0m
• Wales – £0.5m

The Welsh were offered £40m – with clubs in Wales set to gain by £17m. The WRU declined the offer.

Two years later, the clubs in England (and a limited few in Wales) realised that to maximize revenue, they needed money fast to cope with huge wage bills which only a few years earlier didn’t exist. Repeated efforts were made by the RFU and the top echelons of the sport in England to produce a British League. Clubs in Wales were targeted to join this league based on commercial considerations such as the strength of their

What is the WRU?
Founded: 1881
Role: “Administers” 222 member clubs, its affiliated district clubs and schools and youth organizations.
President: Tasker Watkins
Chairman (and Treasurer): Glanmor Griffiths
Secretary: Denis Gethin
The Administrative Committee: made up of 32 elected members, five of whom form an executive committee
The General Committee: made up of 28 members, 16 of whom are district representatives. Five are elected nationally, along with the treasurer, while there are six officials from affiliated organizations: Welsh Districts, Welsh Youth, Welsh Schools, Anglo-Welsh and the Welsh Society of Rugby Union Referees
Recent election results …
… President Tasker Watkins was re-elected unopposed
… Glanmor Griffiths beat nearest rival by 177 votes to 33.
The national representatives’
… Alan Phillips, Howard Watkins, David Pickering, Les Williams and Sam Simon.

following, and the number of “named” players in their squads who could fill the empty stadia. This had nothing to do with the English wanting to play the best rugby playing team in Wales that season – it was purely a commercial decision.

A twenty team competition was to be organized – 14 English, 4 Welsh and 2 Scottish teams. Undoubtedly Cardiff and Swansea were to be two of the Welsh teams. A British League would have guaranteed Welsh rugby top class competition, full stadia, but most importantly access to the much larger (and richer) English market.

So how did the Union in Wales react to this offer? Well, first of all they dreamed up some spurious legal objection which had nothing to do with the proposal. Then they rejected the proposal outright – saying that eight “top” Welsh clubs (plus, by implication Cardiff and Swansea) should be allowed to join the British League. They also insisted on a long term agreement which did not take into account existing contracts. All impractical, and all rejected. Of course the Union knew that their requests would be rejected – they were out to defend the amateur administrators and their cushy benefits – they were not out to ensure a top class echelon for the game in Wales. A British League would undermine their authority and control over the game in Wales.

Let’s not forget the architect in chief of this missed opportunity and the resulting chaos that has ruined our sport in the subsequent three years – Vernon Pugh. He effectively vetoed any chance of a British League chosing to put the authority of petty officialdom ahead of the commercial future of the game in his own country. The hope remained that a British League could happen the following season – when Pugh was not around. Sadly Pugh is still around, and all prospect of a British League has almost totally disappeared.

During the 1998-99 season, Cardiff had one of their most successful seasons ever. The season started with the stuffing of the English champions, played out in front of a crowd greater that the combined attendance of all other first class games in Wales that weekend. Even more significantly, it was higher than any of the Premiership games in England. And so the season continued, with record attendances at home. And then Pugh stepped in. The “friendlies” took on less of an importance, and the English – frustrated and tired of Welsh arrogance – gave up. However, the effect at international level was certainly apparent that season. No longer in awe of their English opponents, Wales stormed to a a rebel-inspired victory over the English. How long will we have to wait to see another?

Looked at in the cold light of day, we can see that the authorities in Wales failed to take key opportunities offered to them during the last five years. Sheer conceit and a total over exaggeration of their own self worth by administrators has led to a string of missed opportunities. The Union and it’s leaders believed from day one that there should be parity in Wales with the English – that we are a strong enough rugby nation able to compete. Undoubtedly true in the amateur days, this belief is totally out of touch with professional sport. Rugby clubs are now business and their spectators are their customers – a simple and obvious fact ignored by the reactionaries in the Union. To compete in the market place, a strong commercial base is essential. Those clubs with successful businessmen at the helm soon realised this – Cardiff and Swansea in particular – but the union and the other amateurs who control the sport in Wales are still stuck with the old amateur way of thinking.

Data Accuracy

A couple of club sites had their own “official” data – Caerphilly, Cardiff and Newport being the most noticeable. Others, make no mention of attendances – notably, Bridgend, Llanelli and Swansea. But with the possible exception of Newport, the accuracy of the data is very suspect.

As for the Zurich Premiership sites, on the whole they are streets ahead in the quantity and accuracy of the data they present. Clubs seem to be much more dedicated to making their web sites work as a way of communicating with fans. Sadly, the level of professionalism in running clubs is mirrored by the professional approach to web sites.

Some in the press will have you believe they have accurate data on attendances – don’t be fooled!

Calculating crowd figures in Wales is a black art. Famously, one owner launched into a tirade against his spectators (customers) for not putting their hard earned money into his club’s coffers. A peculiar business practice that one – a bit like Richard Branson threatening to close his airline if more people didn’t use it!

Turning to allegations over artificially inflated attendances, things go from the bizarre to the ridiculous. The argument for inflation goes something along the lines of “we’re such a popular club we must be chosen to hold one of the franchises”. Although the Inland Revenue have conducted investigations into attendances in Wales, no one seems to know what their findings were. Saying you earned more (inflated figures) than you actually did, means you’d pay more tax than you really needed to. To reduce tax burden, if anything, you’d expect clubs to underestimate attendances!

Whatever the truth of the matter, the gap in the quality of data and reporting between Wales and England says much for the degree of professionalism in the way both structures are organized. Premier Rugby (the company formed by England’s top clubs) regularly publishes data on season ticket figures etc., designed to promote interest in the sport. In Wales, we’re in the dark ages – vested interest is more important than promoting the game.

Why reduce the number of professional clubs?

The sport in Wales is being bled dry by a drain of resources in brown envelopes to sub standard players in the lower leagues. This is not something new – it merely reflects the scandalous complacency of the administrators of our sport. Rewarding mediocrity at the lower levels has eroded the foundations of our sport and we are sliding down the international ratings.

The Union (and national coach) has long insisted on picking the national team from players based in Wales. Not long ago our national captain was refusing to play for Wales when at Richmond because he received less money from the Union than “locally” based players. Allan Phillips, has recently underlined this opinion by saying that Wales should refuse to pick players who chose to broaden their rugby playing experience by playing outside Wales. So who pays for keeping this talent in Wales?

Some would have you believe that the only reason for reducing the number of professional clubs at the top level in Wales is debt. Well, one way to reduce that debt would be to sell Scott Quinnell to Gloucester, Robert Howely to Leicester and good ol’ Iestyn back up north. Then we could get rid of Darren Morris to Bath, Dafydd James to Saracens …. the list goes on. A number of top names only returned to Wales thanks to the money in the sport being invested by the sugar daddies.

Those who complain about the debt in the game want to have their cake and eat it! They want top Welsh players playing in Wales every week, but – by implication – they want them to do it for wages less than they could earn in England! Players have limited careers and this naive assumption that they play in Wales because its so much better than fifty miles across the Severn is ridiculous. These are the same apologists with their prejudices firmly rooted in the amateur days – they don’t understand the professional sport.

The sport needs the sugar daddies to keep the top players in Wales and these individuals deserve a return on their investment – they deserve to have some influence.

Franchised Super-Clubs …. a new idea?

…. well, as a matter of fact, no. During the fledgling negotiations over a British League, the WRU set out its requirements.”Bidding clubs will be expected to be incorporated, to have an acceptable financial position, to have an existing reputation and profile as a quality club, and a professional, experienced accountable board of directors.” (But even then the Union gave further example of their incompetence by expecting bidders to put forward proposals for these franchises within 72 hours!)

Since the time of the rebel season, the game in Wales has staggered onwards with the club structure largely kept alive by the investment of sugar daddies. A poorly structured and deeply flawed Celtic League finally came into being, but club competitions are still unsponsored and the chaotic relationship between clubs and the Union regarding players contracts has led to divided loyalties and a disjointed international squad.

A working party was set up by the Union to look a the running of the game (one of the conditions laid down by the rebel clubs before they agreed to return to the domestic game) comprising of members of the committee and a number of leading ex-internationals. Committees seem to be the answer to all ills in Wales and when one fails, set up anther. Sure enough, stalemate in this committee led to the setting up of a subcommittee – this time shorn of the vested interests of Union members. Two of the WRU representatives on this committee resigned mysteriously on hearing the findings. That was six months ago.

What is the PRA?

• One piece of cross border cooperation has definitely come to fruition. The Professional Rugby Players Association (PRA) was established by Damien Hopley in England to look after players interests (a bit like soccer’s PFA). Players at Cardiff, Swansea, Newport, Bridgend Llanelli and Pontypridd have been encouraged to sign up with this organisation.

• Significantly, a number of internationals have yet to renew their contracts with the union – which expired on 31st May this year.

Finally, in August this year, Tasker Watkins committed that the findings of the report would be submitted to the Special General Meeting (SGM) in January. But don’t hold your breathe – they would then need to be voted on by the members of the Union. Quite what incentive there would be for the “amateurs” to vote away their income stream is not clear. “Turkeys voting for Xmas”, as someone once put it! This is the fourth time in the last 12 years that a committee has tendered proposals for improving the structure of the game – the last three were not even put to the members!

Most of the previous reports into how the game should be structured have been buried, but this one finally looks like it will reach the public arena.

It seems that the committee have recommended to the Union that the money being poured into the empty hole that is rugby below the top level should be dramatically cut – and this is doing to hurt for those pigs with their noses in the trough of the game in Wales. All those free lunches could end up disappearing. Obviously the game below the top league should return to amateurism – could this really, finally happen?

What does the report propose?

• the creation of five ‘superclub’ franchises. Franchises to be awarded to clubs with the best facilities with some regional influence.

• that the General Committee of the WRU hands over the running of the game to a non-elected professional board.

There are too many professional players in Wales being paid sums of money the WRU and the clubs do not have. We need to get down to a maximum of 150 professional players competing at the highest level.

With delays on the findings of the committee being published, the premier clubs in Wales have been flexing their muscles. Ebbw Vale – who cannot claim to maintain professional rugby on the gates they claim to enjoy – are unsurprisingly opposed to any streamlining of the professional game, reliant as they are on other clubs’ supporters for their livelihood.

Although Premier Rugby Partnership of Wales (PRPW) has been established, infighting amongst clubs has further divided the sport in Wales. Woeful leadership from the Union has led to bitterness and division.

What is PREP?

• A legal partnership between the clubs and the players, and provides a hefty bargaining tool in negotiations with the WRU.

The sport has completely failed to come to terms with professionalism and the need to run a profitable business in order to maintain a professional arm to the game in Wales. Focussing on success or failure in any one season, relative success of youth teams and “poaching” from other clubs completely misses the point. Clubs are now businesses and a structure needs to be built which is based on sound business practices – not on who’s performing well that season. Stadium facilities, catchment area, sound financial plans, coherent business plans and a firm structure to the business are more important than whether this season’s outside half is a product of the youth team or was signed from Pontypridd. Too many of the vested interests in the game have failed to make the necessary adjustments to the professional game and as a result, the game itself is slipping towards bankruptcy, kept alive only by the investments of a handful of individuals.

Is this sounding all familiar? Have we really gone full circle? Four years ago the WRU were offered four clubs in a British League and they insisted on eight (plus two). How foolish is that decision now looking? The position of those at Cardiff and Swansea who led Welsh rugby to the realization that the present structure was unsustainable is now entirely vindicated. Their actions were sadly four years ahead of the rest of the game in Wales.

So how does the RFU do it?

Following the truce called between the RFU and England’s top premiership clubs, the game as a spectator sport is now booming across the border. Not only are meaningless internationals sell outs, the club game is also seeing a rapid increase in attendances and growing sponsorship deals. Television money is also being pumped into the game. The RFU turned in a record profit during the last year financial year and a new spirit of cooperation in the sport has produced winning results on the pitch. Fierce competition for places at the national level result from fierce competition for places at club level.

Present Sponsorship deals signed by Premier Rugby in England
Muller
Kay International
bio synergy
Game Face Inc.
Land Rover

The running of the game in England is basically split into two – the amateur sport is run by the RFU with the professional arm of the sport being run by England Rugby. This organisation is a partnership between the Union and Premier Rugby – the Professional Clubs and the players. Should we be surprised that this unified front has produced a unified winning international team, whilst in Wales the antagonistic attitude between the reactionaries and visionaries has produced a disjointed and disorganised defeated international team?

So what does this mean for the clubs? Well, those at the top end of the game will receive approaching two million for the next eight-years …. a joint venture agreement was signed in July this year. The resulting stability and structure this agreement has afforded has increased the money flowing into the game – whether from spectators tickets or from sponsors – and increased the exposure positive press coverage. It has also provided Gunner Woodward with a stable platform on which to build international success.

There is also a new television deal in place – one that finally takes the sport to terrestrial television. Now just sit back and watch the crowds grow and the sponsors queue up!

The Future

Marcus Russel is right about one thing – top clubs need a degree of independence from the Union, just as happened in England. The latest leak to the press says that the Union will partly own the franchised clubs – what a horrendous mistake that would be! Putting aside the legalities of such a move – some clubs may claim that the Union is creating a closed shop at the top level – they’ve already proved incapable of running the game since the advent of professionalism. Do we really wan the committeemen of the Union to ruin any chance of creating a thriving top echelon of the game in Wales?

We need to attract top businessmen as investors in the sport in order to compete. We also need to attract top commercial people to market the sport and keep it afloat financially. These two issues are clumsily overlooked by the reactionaries who are still confusing tradition with the need to run a successful business.

There are many mysteries associated with the move towards professionalism in Wales. We’ve already discussed the confusion between creating viable commercial entities and temporary success on the pitch, another even more bewildering is the talk over how many clubs there should be without deciding on what the fixture list should be!

The “perfect structure for the season” could be a model of a Celtic League followed by European Cup followed by Six Nations. 3 Scottish, 5 Welsh and 4 Irish teams would produce 22 games Celtic League – more than the Irish want. Add a European Cup which should be four groups of six (which the English don’t want) and you have a minimum of 10 European games plus the fix Six Nations games (which the WRU don’t want). Our top professionals could be playing 37 games per season.

One thing is for sure, with the desperate lack of leadership and the “need” to compromise, the likelihood is that the muddle will continue and we still won’t get a decent fixture list. We’re living on borrowed time if we want to keep our best payers in Wales. Can the WRU deliver?

An open letter to Graham Henry …..

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The logical future of the RFU’s present isolationism is that they will soon become so financially ahead of the Welsh clubs that the gap in playing levels will widen.As you know, one of the saddest things in Welsh rugby is the stubborn refusal of club fans in Wales to wake up to the reality of professionalism. Professionalism is unsustainable if clubs don’t have decent pitches, decent stadia and average gates approaching 10,000 at least!

You can see that Welsh rugby will mere become a training ground for the richer, sponsored English clubs unless we do something NOW. We’ve all heard talk that the English are ready to sign contracts for broadcasting rights and sponsorship that will bring them 250m!!

So when they blame you for defeat, tell them the way it is.

Sadly, Wales has a tiny economy (and a population less than Birmingham’s) and there’s simply not enough money domestically to sustain a structure which can compete with the wealthier English game. A stuborn refusal by the WRUin and supporters of smaller clubs to recognise this fact is therefore dragging us all down.

Whether we like it or not, the name of Llanelli will generate more interest nationally than Neath or Pontypridd. Therefore, the marketing boys and the corporate investers, the media and the sponsors and the press at large will show interest in Llanelli vs Harlequins – they’ll sponsor it, they’ll put it on television etc, etc. Sadly, the same cannot be said of Neath vs London Irish. With the loss of the steel works in Ebbw, one wonders how long the club can survive – there’s simply not enough money in the area to sustain professional sport.

We need to have a pool of players at the top end of the game competing for their places week in week out (as well as for the international side) in clubs who can beat the top English teams.

Sadly, too many club supporters in Wales blindly support their club without demanding more. How many fans in Wales have actually visited Leicester with their 10,000 average gate, Saracens with their excellent match day organisation and Bath with their extremely wealthy supporters? As you know, club fans in Wales struggle to look outside their own club.

We have to look outside our own borders to progress – 220 clubs in Wales will not produce a winning national side which can challenge for the Six Nations let alone the World Cup now that the age of professionalism has dawned.

I grew up thinking that the English would never beat us on a rugby pitch in Wales – we were invincible. Now they’re beating us because of their superior organisation and professionalism. Welsh rugby still has more flair, but unless we can match that level of organisation and professionalism (which means whether we like it or not, MONEY), we’re going to fall further behind.

Unless we get a British League soon, within 10 years Welsh rugby will adopt the same posture as Welsh football does now – a pale imitation of its English counterpart, feeding a couple of players to the top leagues, and woefully outclassed at international level. Anyone who looks at the gaps that have emerged in football should learn what professionalism an TV contracts does.

Some time soon the English will realise that they need the Celts for opposition. If they decide they don’t need us and bugger off to play the SA-NZ-Ozzies, then you can wave goodbye to the professional sport in Wales.

I don’t think this will happen, do you?

When they realise they need us, then they will realise that somehow money has to be injected into the game in Wales, and that means a professional league. And here’s the crux of the matter. Will the WRUin have enough humility to realise that Wales cannot stand alone against the financial power of the English game? As things stand at the moment, the WRUin are far too arrogant and full of their own self importance. How bad do things need to get before they learn some humility? How many times do we have to get thrashed by the English before the WRUin realise that maybe we need them more than they need us?

So before your contract comes to an end, Graham, have a word with those boys at the WRUin. Tell them the way it is. Tell them to swallow their petty village loyalties and look outside the village. There’s a big world out there with so much to learn!

A brief Introduction to rugby in Ireland

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Although the Irish Rugby Football Union was formed in 1874, club rugby had been played in the country for many years before that. Trinity College Dublin claims to be one of the oldest clubs in Ireland, having been formed in 1854, while North of Ireland FC soon followed in 1859.

Ireland played their first test match against England at the Oval in 1875, but it was not until 1881 that they first won a test, against Scotland at Ormeau in Belfast. During the 1880’s the four provincial branches of the IRFU first ran cup competitions and although these tournaments still take place every year their significance has been diminished by the advent of an All Ireland league. This was first held, with two divisions in 1990, and since then has developed to highly competitive four divisions. In the 10 seasons since its introduction the league has never been won by a club from outside of Munster, with Shannon laying claim to the title of greatest ever Irish club side by winning the title for four years in succession from 1994-1998.

The four provinces – one of which will form Cardiff’s opposition in the European Cup – have played an Interprovincial Championship since the 1920’s and continue to be the focal point for players aspiring to International level. Munster, Leinster and Ulster continue to be the strongest three with Connacht, in the west of the country traditionally the weakest. The top three provinces compete in the European Cup, which Ulster won in 1999, while Connacht take part in the European Shield.

As such, Irish rugby is based on a pyramid system – clubs, provinces and internationals. The IRFU decided that in the professional era they would make the 4 Provinces (Ulster, Leinster, Munster & Connacht) professional with the clubs remaining in essence amateur/semi professional. During the summer months, each Province is told the size of its squad (approx 26) and all but two must have Irish connections (the grandparents rule comes into play). Also, all the squad must play their rugby in Ireland and preferably within the province for which they have been chosen.

Therefore the current Ulster side shows two non-Irish players (Ryan Constable and Grant Henderson) with the rest having Irish backgrounds. Shane Stewart, Brad Free, Russell Nelson, Andy Ward and John Campbell are non-Ulster born (Stewart, Ward – NZ, Nelson – SA, Free – Australia and Campbell – Dublin) but qualify. All except Campbell play their club rugby in Ulster but only at the completion of the Interprovincial Championship and European Cup competitions (or where there is a break in them like after the October European Cup dates).

1-Sept Ulster Munster
1-Sept Leinster Connacht
8-Sept Munster Leinster
9-Sept Connacht Ulster
15-Sept Leinster Ulster
15-Sept Munster Connacht
22-Sept Ulster Leinster
23-Sept Connacht Munster
29-Sept Munster Ulster
30-Sept Connacht Leinster

So the clubs will have them for roughly 14 games just before Xmas and beyond. Local players earn a contract (with the Ulster Branch) through performances at club level while perceived gaps in talent are filled by overseas (Irish and non-Irish backgrounds). Most of the current squad were retained from last year with only Stewart getting selected on the basis of his Ballymena club displays. The seven new faces are Nelson, Free, Constable, Henderson, Stewart, Boyd (originally from Ulster) and Campbell.

The squad cannot be added to during the season except in the case of injuries such as now with the loss of Dion O’Cuinneagain and Allen Clarke. Ulster may have one gap left for either of these positions. The provincial squads are limited in numbers – unlike the Welsh, French and English clubs – with a set wage structure that someone like Peter Muller would not get togged out for. Even Ulster’s international players won’t earn near what he is on, hence the attraction of the mainland.

For the record, the Interprovincial Cup starts on September 1st when Ulster take on Munster. Only when these fixtures start will we get a better idea of the relative strengths of the provinces ….

Thanks to Alistair at the unofficial site of Ulster RFC for helping us put this short introduction together.

A Lions XV

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Well, everyone’s at it, so now we’re joining in.

Criteria are best players of the Six Nations so far, with one wild card allowed.

15. Matt Perry, Glenn Metcalfe

Big gamble but two for the future!

14. Austin Metro, Gareth Thomas

Metcalf is fast and can cover for Full Back and Wing. Austin Metro is fast and can cover for everwhere – little sh@t.

13. Brian O’Driscol, Mark Taylor

Haven’t seen too many outside centres going outside their man this year. Someone English will probably get picked in the final shout next year

12. Mike Catt, John Leslie

Gibbs will replace Catt, but Townsend is such a good inside centre and such a sh@t stand off – didn’t get a chance this year.

11. Ben who? Dafydd James

More big and ugly players needed to mark Ben Tune and Joe Roff!

10. Rubber Johnie, Ginger Monster

Johnie is the man for the tests and Jinx is the man for this kicks. Can’t see anyone getting near them.

9. Matt Paint, Rob Howley

Dawson has been the most commanding figure of the competition. Nichol put in a great performance against the Saes. Irish SH was completely non existant. Howley gets in because there’s no one else. Howley will definitely shine at Leicester away from the Villagers!

8. Larry Dilidalio, Pies Snr

Need two big ball carriers at number 8 – someone teach Pies how to tackle.

7. Neil Back, Martin Leslie

Leslie at open side is cheating, but we’re running out of Scotts! Need a mad Irishman in the back row, but couldn’t see one this season.

6. Richard Hill, Colin Charvis

Charvis awesome tackling must win him a place – Hill has the complete game and is very underated.

5. Malcolm O’Kelly, Simon Shaw

Very impressed by Kelly this season – awesome performance against Wales, similarly Shaw is a complete second row. Jeremy Davidson should be there next year, but didn’t see much of him this year.

4. Scott Murray, Garath Archer

Murray has been class for the past two seasons – Archer’s a cheat and we hate him, but who else is there? Martin Johson will get the selection.

3. Dai Iawn, Paul Wallace

Really struggling at tight head. English and Irish can’t scrummage.

2. Keith Wood, Jon Humphreys

Easiest choice of the lot!

1. Jason Leonard, Tom Smith

Still struggling here – Only Wales seem to have decent props but we can’t pick lardy big mouth!

E- 12 W – 9 S -5 I – 4

Humph as the wild card who hasn’t played in this season’s Five Nations

The options are clear – Metcalfe is a full back, Rhys Williams is too young. Gareth Thomas, despite what we know, only plays international rugby on the wing and that is where he will be selected. Catt and Leslie have had good championships and deserve their places – especially if Woodward is Coach.

Smith and Wallace were the Lions props on the last tour.

Tom and Phil’s Lions XXXVII

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Everyone’s at it – so here’s our Lions XXXVII. Thirty seven players is a very large party, but the flexibility of players to play in a number of positions could be the key for this tour. England have demonstrated that an over-dependence on skill in one position limits attacking potential.

To give balance, we went for a non-English captain, and Keith Wood is one of the few players guaranteed to be in the starting line up for the tests.

The English full backs pick themselves with Perry the starter for the first test. We’ve gone for speedsters on the wing (who can tackle – of course) instead of the donkeys Gunner Woodward likes to pick. Craig Morgan is chosen because he’s better than Shane Williams. Our test wingers would be Robinson and Healy

Gibbs’ days are past – crash ball inside centres are a thing of the past. Likewise the ponderous and clumsy Greenwood is omitted. We prefer the option of Townsend or Catt in an extra SH role at inside centre. O’Driscoll is class and looks to start with Catt.

FB Perry, Balshaw
WTB HealeyRobinson, Craig Morgan, Hickie, Thomas
C CattO’Driscoll, Townsend, Henderson, Taylor
OH Wilkinson, Jenkins
SH Howley, Dawson, Bracken
Props SmithVickery, Morris, Young, Leonard
H Wood (c), West, Greening
SR JohnsonGrewcock, Murray, O’Kelly, Davidson
BR DallaglioQuinnellBack, Hill, Charvis, Poutney, Wallace

Four half backs are so far ahead of the competition, they pick themselves, though we’d start with Wilkinson and Howley.

Tight head props in the Six Nations have been thin on the ground, and we’re banking on Smith-Wood-Vickery as our Test front row. Dai Young get’s the nod for the tough mid-week dirt tracker fixtures.

Competition in the second row is very tough indeed with any two from five likely to make the tests, though we’d probably pick Johnson and Grewcock.

Our back row looks as strong as any the Ozzies can put on the park, but we’d probably start with Back, Quinnell and Larry.

What will decide the test matches will be the platform the forwards give and that extra bit of unorthodoxy and inventiveness that players like Healy, Robinson, O’Driscoll and Howley can provide.

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