It wasn’t so long ago that Cardiff were thrown out of competing in the Welsh League because the club refused to sign a long term agreement with the WRU. This was at a time when professionalism was new to the game and some of the clubs were fighting the Unions for control of the game, it’s assets and it’s future.
Doesn’t that sound familiar?
This week we have heard from Nigel Wray, the Saracens Chairman, that the Welsh teams should join the Aviva Premiership which is remarkably similar to what happened when Cardiff (and Swansea) were thrown out of the Welsh League. They had campaigned for the Welsh clubs to go with the English clubs and won an agreement for a year long competition, after the Rebel Season had finished, for four Welsh clubs to play in such a competition. That year was to be spent with all four parties (the RFU, the WRU, the Welsh clubs and the English clubs) sorting out the future of the competition in terms of ownership, income generation and the distribution of that income to the participants.
Cardiff had put Welsh rugby on the front foot with these negotiations and Peter Thomas was leading the way, but the fight was won by Vernon Pugh and Glanmor Griffiths of the WRU. They blocked the tournament, Cardiff and Swansea lost their bottle and we have been subjected to over a decade of dreadful Celtic rugby ever since.
Of course, there was a backlash within Wales. The minor clubs were up in arms and the tail wagged the dog. We have seen the myth of “regional rugby” imposed and now we see the domestic game dying in Welsh rugby.
The loss of the HEC next season will leave a hole of £5.5m into the professional game in Wales. The HEC generates almost as much for the four teams (yes, the Newport GD get an equal share despite not playing in the competition) as does the International game. This is a key point: what the WRU pays for access to the players is only slightly more (£6m) than the HEC pays just for playing in the competition. That £5.5m is before gate receipts and match day takings, of course, so it is pretty obvious that the HEC generates MORE for the professional game in Wales. In the unlikely event that one of the three teams get to the knockout stages then all of the prize money (and it is substantial) that they earn is then theirs.
The key part of that £6m from the WRU is that it is for access to players outside of the IRB window. For those who think that the professional game in Wales either doesn’t need that access or will be able to negotiate it from other club organisations, you have to wonder why a Union would do that instead of ensuring its own domestic supply chain is strong AND you have to wonder if the Union would be able to pay the demands of those foreign club organisations. Once the players are lost from playing in Wales then the access to them is much more difficult and, potentially, much more expensive.
So that’s the scene we now have in Welsh rugby. Over a decade ago, the clubs had the opportunity to lead their destiny but now they are solely reliant on others doing that for them. Do the clubs side with the WRU and be subservient forever with no change of making the business pay, or do they push to side with the clubs and face another Union / Minor clubs backlash?
Cardiff used to be good. They used to be a top team. They used to be leading these negotiations and, at one point, the Chief Executive of Cardiff was a board member of the organisation that ran the English club game. Nowadays, however, Cardiff lose at home to the worst professional team in Europe. Nowadays, Cardiff are reliant on old favours and memories for a place at the top table in European rugby.
And the irony for the regionalists is that what could allow Welsh professional rugby to survive is the relationships built up well before 2003, whilst the time spent since 2003 has been navel gazing to appease the Villagers instead of pushing forward the professional game.