Wales not only has a disproportionate number of paid players, but also a disproportionate number of professional clubs. Instead of moving to reduce the number of clubs, the Union is intent on maintaining the status quo, and like King Canute sitting on his throne is trying hard to force back the tides of professionalism. Nine clubs are not sustainable in Wales, and only through the efforts of private benefactors is the game being kept alive. Their subsidies are the only thing creating a spectacle worth watching.
Instead of cutting the weakest teams from the Welsh-Scottish League – those who consistently have failed to perform and finished at the bottom, we cut on geographical lines. This is a typical “small minded” approach based on a true village mentality and not based on creating a tough environment in which our players should compete. More games against Ebbw Vale & Caerphilly or Edinburgh & Glasgow – which is the tougher?
Because the WRU failed to cut the number of teams at the top of the sport we lost the chance for a decent Celtic League next season. It seems we’ve now also lost the chance of two tough away games a season. The standard is therefore being gradually eroded by the WRU who are happy to let clubs like Ebbw Vale and Caerphilly dictate what is best for the full time professionals which represent our country. Ebbw Vale and Caerphilly are never going to win anything – they are merely feeder clubs. Their attendance figures render them unsustainable full time professional clubs. They are only in the league to make up the fixture list and as soon as the legal problems are out of the way, expect them to slide to the First Division where they belong.
Thomas Castaignede knows what’s wrong. “Caerphilly ….. had plenty of heart and I don’t like to single them out, but they had the look of a team who hadn’t won for a year and that was what they were. There needs to be fewer professional clubs in Wales, because the country does not have the resources. What cash is there, is spread around too thinly. They have to have properly funded professional rugby among a core of elite teams, with the remaining clubs reverting to amateur or semi-pro.”
Some coaches feel that a central body should contract players and then draft them out to clubs. Well those clubs who invest in Youth would hardly get the benefit they deserve. This model increases a culture of dependency where clubs constantly go cap in hand to the central body for hand outs instead of providing their own players and their own financial viability. Why should clubs relinquish the successful nurturing of a player to a club which is unable to nurture their own players? Hardly a recipe for enhancing that players prospects, is it?
This is the same culture says that players should play every week – and not have to play for their places. Mervyn Davies famously wrote in his autobiography that he only played his best rugby when he was competing with Andy Ripley for a place in the Lions’ XV, and that he’d too often turned in substandard performances in Wales where he was picked automatically.
Has Jinx game really improved on the last three seasons or has he just been treading water? When faced with competition for his place from the excellent Paul Burke, the club mysteriously got rid of the better player. Jinx wants to play rugby every week, we are told. Well justify your place!
Ebbw Vale’s Wales prop Iestyn Thomas is a perfect example. He is joining Llanelli but will face competition for a place from Martyn Madden. Is that good for Welsh league rugby because one of them is going to miss out? Or is it excellent for Welsh rugby that competition between Madden and Thomas will force them to exceed their present performance levels in order to get a game? We don’t want a team of loafers who turn up each week and don’t have to compete for places.
But the biggest reason why central contracts won’t work is that the game just doesn’t generate enough cash for the Union to match the wages we need to keep the best players in Wales. Limiting the number of central contracts is the only way of controlling expenses – and then there’ll never be enough contracts around to subsidise clubs who’s very existence is based on a romantic assertion rather than hard business facts.
The Welsh-Scottish League
The demise of the Welsh-Scottish League was a sad reflection of the inability of either Union to make a success of cross border competition. Even Yoda could see the danger in ripping up a competition which was forcing Welsh players to play in new environments, under testing conditions. To say that the Scots brought nothing to Welsh rugby, begs the question of what exactly do teams who have finished below the Scots bring to the game? The classic view from the village was perfectly expressed by Graham Thomas – only focussing on the Scots poor performances in Wales, instead of the corresponding poor performances of Welsh teams in Scotland!
Replacing games against the Scots with more of the same against local rivals smacks of all that’s wrong with the incestuous nature of South Wales rugby. Cardiff experienced three excellent games against our close rivals Newport last season – this season, we could end up playing them four times! How is this going to improve our players abilities to think on their feet? Won’t we suffer from the same old trench warfare that encouraged Cardiff and Swansea to leave the Village in the first place? This move is based purely on money – not the aim for sporting excellence. Mismanagement in the marketing of the league rendered it sponsorless and therefore doomed.
So now we only have the unbalanced Celtic League – largely dictated by who gets the home draw, rather than the best team over the length of the competition. And even this competition is being short changed by those great conservatives of the game in Wales – the Oliver Twist of the South Wales Valleys, Ebbw Vale. As Llanelli chief executive Stuart Gallacher quite rightly said of Ray Harris description of the Celtic League as a drain on resource, “If that’s how Ebbw Vale feel they should go and play in Division One.”
“It may not be perfect, but people should consider what the alternatives to the Celtic League are – a 12 or 14 Division Welsh domestic league perhaps?”
“The English clubs don’t want to play us, although perhaps one or two Welsh teams could play in the Zurich Premiership.” Now which two would that be ……?
The Third Way
Of the many proposals for restructuring the game in recent times, one of the more interesting came from the subsidised clubs in the First Divison. The so-called “The Third Way” advocated that the top three/four Premier Division sides – having earned their places at the summit – detach themselves completely from domestic rugby and just play in the Heineken Cup and Celtic League. Tom and Phil agree with this basic premise, although we hope that five full time professional clubs are sustainable. Much of the other recommendations for the structure of the game also make perfect sense. Sadly though, where they fall down is on the sordid question of money. Clubs at the lower and professionally unsustainable level of the game, still want hand outs in order to keep their cushy perks going.
We take a look at the detailed proposals below ….
1. A three/four-strong elite of clubs to compete at Celtic League and Heineken Cup, who would be given all the money they “earn” through status won by merit on the field.
The elite idea is a good one, though we need a long term view of what we need in Wales. Money should be awarded based on franchises, not temporary success. We need investment in youth, excellent facilities and the long term – not just buy up the best players and inflate salaries.
2. A salary cap for leading players and radical alteration of funding to premier clubs.
Impractical – as has been proved in football. Inventive clubs will always find a way around salary caps. The only way to keep salaries under control is to insist that clubs invest in areas other than salaries.
3. Promotion and relegation to be enshrined in all leagues, but only guaranteed by satisfying qualification criteria (such as facilities, commercial potential etc.)
Very good point – as long as our comments on point 1 are ensured.
4. League rugby includes no play-offs and no golden parachutes for the relegated International playing contracts be altered to a performance-related system, market forces to dictate where players play and central contracts for leading players as soon as possible.
5. The league structure would also be split between professional and amateur with a semi-professional league catering for a transition between the two. Below the premiership, the WRU in conjunction with relevant agencies, local authorities and government bodies would begin a radical overhaul of all clubs.
No funding for clubs below the top elite – we can’t afford it! But certainly splitting the professional and amateur arm is the way forward.
6. The management of the game would be radically altered to cater for the proposed changes and leading under-19 players would be centrally contracted and placed with clubs in an American Football-style draft-system.
This is the more hair brained of all the proposals. Players should be allowed to play for who they like, or they’ll end up all going to Bath!
Sadly, the third way does not prioritise success in Europe – it just wants to create a structure where everyone has a right to access European competition ….. regardless of the need to equip our representatives with competitive credentials (players, coaches, stadia, etc. etc.) . The result will be a pyramid too flat to keep our best players in Wales.
The Union is in meltdown mode. They are now being put under increasing pressure to sell the family jewels in order to invest in the club game.
All the money raised from the sale will be frittered away on unsustainable business ventures which will bleed the game of its heritage. This will be the death of the game in Wales. Huge debts run up by clubs like Llanelli, and the unsustainability of running a professional rugby club in Ebbw Vale mean that if the Union is allowed to continue on its present path it will continue to waste money on a series of financial suicide packages.
Clubs will become more and more in debt to the Union, with only Cardiff, Newport and Bridgend owning their own grounds, which is vital to have an asset against which to borrow in the future in order to invest. Eventually the Union with have to act, when the money runs out. If they won’t cut subsidies, then the bankers will insist they do so. Clubs will be forced to merge or die.
With debts increasing and the lack of credible teams in Europe, our players will learn the losing habit as soon as they venture outside the trench warfare that is Welsh club rugby. When our losing streak in the Six Nations continues, ticket sales will fall and the Union will be forced to sell to throw more money into the bottomless pit of unsustainable clubs. Our top clubs – starved of cash – will lose their best players to England, and the downward cycle will continue.
Why are we waiting for this scenario to develop? Without a radical overhaul of professional rugby in Wales the game will slowly die, or at best be a feeder for English rugby.
What sort of future do you want? Ten mediocre teams competing in a devalued, sponsorless, second division league, or five clubs challenging for honours in Europe producing players who are used to winning in France and England. Compete in Europe or die. To us, the choice is clear.
We’ve been saying for many years that Welsh rugby can only sustain a pool of around 120 players. Only the emergence of Leighton Samuels’ money at Bridgend has convinced us that this figure could increase slightly.
Putting aside the romantic sentimentality that ruins any clear thinking on the future of the game in Wales shows us that we need a mixture of our strong traditions with the harsh realities of running a business in a competitive environment.
It’s clear than a limit of four (or perhaps a maximum of five) professional clubs are sustainable in Wales – taking into account our relative economic strength. As our goal should be to compete in Europe against the French and English, we advocate a steeper pyramid. We are not interested in pandering to the wishes of organisation with limited ambitions and limited resources. Competing only in the Village gets us nowhere – we must win the Heineken Cup as the only way of growing the sport in Wales.
We advocate a structured season which peaks towards the Six Nations, fed by Europe in which Welsh teams have a chance of winning, honed by a competitive Celtic “Super 12” League – containing four Irish teams, three Scots and five Welsh. Our target would be to have four/five clubs playing in modern stadia with a capacity of 20,000. There is no reason why this cannot happen – the Australians manage this without a real history of Union.
Australian Super 12 teams contain 50 professionals – which we think is excessive. 35 full time professionals is sustainable and allows for progress from junior clubs should injuries interrupt the season. 150 professionals (plus perhaps 2 seasoned internationals from outside the EU for coaching/experience purposes) will provide a sufficient pool from which to select a squad of 30 for Welsh internationals.
Each squad must contain a specified number of U23 players as a way of guaranteeing an investment in future internationals. If the Union has less than £10m to invest in club rugby, then in order to match the central funding offered by the English, £2m a club is the only solution.
Other possible franchise winners could be …
1. A Gwent team – built around Pontypool, Ebbw Vale, Abertillery and Newbridge.
2. A Cynon Valley team – built around Pontypridd, Mountain Ash, Abercynon, Aberdare and Merthyr.
3. A Bridgend team – built around Bridgend, Maesteg, Porthcawl and Pyle.
4. A Llanelli team – built around Llanelli, Camarthen and Amanford.
5. A Port Talbot team – built around Neath and Aberavon.
We firmly believe that the only way to equitably decide on which clubs should receive central support and be entered in the Celtic Super 12 and European competitions is through a franchise system. Every club in Wales should have the opportunity to bid for one of the five franchises with the criteria being laid down by the Union. Given our target of clubs selling out a 20,000 seater stadium, franchise winners must demonstrate that they have business plans which include the provision of facilities to attract this sort of audience.
It’s by forgetting the importance of spectators that Welsh rugby is dying. Without the revenue from large gates (which in turn attract the attention of sponsors), we cannot compete in Europe because we will not be able to retain our top players.
Wales contains three major cities – Cardiff, Swansea and Newport – and we would hope that each could put together franchise bids which meet the criteria we’ve discussed. There are then two other franchises available. Central subsidy of unsustainable clubs for purely historical/sentimental reasons is not an option. Franchises should only be awarded to clubs who have sufficient private backing and who can meet the franchise criteria.
In our model, no central funds will be wasted on any clubs in Wales other than the top five. The Union will separate into two arms – that governing the professional five clubs and that representing the rest of the amateur sport. It will invest any other monies available in providing facilities at grass roots level – district coaches, pitches and training facilities, school support, etc.
What factors should be used to decide on who gets the franchises? Franchise winners must show ….
- A sound business plan – at least £2m ready to invest in the club – funds from corporate sponsorship, private backing and ticket sales etc. etc.
- An investment plan which includes the running of a Youth team and various youth rugby initiatives.
- An investment plan which includes the running of an U21 team
- The provision of a stadium owned by the franchise holder with a business plan to increase that stadium’s capacity to 20,000.
In return, the Union will guarantee the award of a £2m package to the franchise holder for a three year period. At the end of the three years, franchises will be reassessed. Should poor business performance or poor performance on the pitch be failing to promote the game as the franchise holder should, other bids could result in a removal of the franchise.
A Structured Season
Players should play a maximum of 35 games per season, maybe a little high, but most players would not go on to play five games for Wales in a season.
|mid-August to January
||Celtic Super 12
||….. 22 games on a home and away basis (18 Friday/Saturday/Sundays evening games plus 4 mid-week games)
|January to March
||four pools of six teams 10 pool games plus three knock out = maximum of 13 games
|April & May
Frankly, we see little merit in the November internationals which only disrupt a poorly structured season and are only designed to make money for the Union. If the sport was marketed and sponsored correctly, there’d be no need for the November games.
Any overseas team touring the UK would do so in June/July and vice versa – thus cutting the number of International games but having a Worldwide International Season – of course this would need the support of the SANZAR countries, or Rupert Murdoch!!! Can you imagine how happy Murdoch would be with a World Championship of Rugby in May/June/July/August, thus filling the gap in the football season.