The Welsh Rugby Union are proposing to cut the number of regional teams from four to three in a bombshell plan that will change the game in Wales.
The proposals, which WRU chief Steve Phillips will discuss with the regions next week, will likely see the previously doomed Scarlets-Ospreys merger put forward as one option, while the axing of the WRU-owned Dragons or the Ospreys has also been mooted. Any move that threatens the existence of a side is likely to be met with fierce opposition from some quarters.
The Union have spent around £25,000 commissioning a report by Oakwell Sports Advisory, known as the Umbers report, with recommendations suggesting losing a team is the way to make professional rugby in Wales financially viable and successful. It’s understood the Dragons and the Ospreys are the two sides named in the report as potentially being under threat, with the Dragons’ ownership model and the Ospreys’ lack of stadium ownership mentioned.
The changes would come into force from the start of the 2023-24 season. Read the WRU’s response here.
Read next:Welsh rugby’s crisis uncovered: The problems, solutions and why the WRU now has to be overhauled
Gist Vile has been told that one other option previously being discussed – a two-plus-two model that would see two fully-funded regions and two given development status – is now deemed unworkable.
The possibility of three regions being supplemented by a development side in North Wales is not totally ruled out at this stage, though it’s hard to see the surviving regions agreeable to such a proposal.
A series of meetings have been ongoing behind the scenes for a number of weeks, with Welsh rugby in a state of crisis. The current four pro sides, Cardiff, Ospreys, Scarlets and Dragons have all endured largely miserable seasons, with the men’s national side’s disastrous Six Nations, which saw a first ever home defeat against Italy, appearing to be a tipping point for the WRU to act.
The regions have all posted significant financial losses on the back of the Covid pandemic and remain saddled with a £20m loan debt taken out on their behalf by the WRU. Coaches from the four sides have all been asked to give their views to the Union on what needs to happen to make the game in Wales successful, with more funding and better player pathways at the top of their wish lists.
The WRU have been receiving criticism from all angles in recent weeks amid the mounting problems. WRU chief Phillips’ focus has very much been on investing in capital projects that will bring long term revenue, such as the new Parkgate Hotel on Westgate Street, but opponents question why the Union is not investing more directly into the pro game now to improve playing and coaching standards.
The Union’s proposals are certain to face strong challenges when they go before the Professional Rugby Board, which includes bosses of all four teams. Fans will also have strong views, with the future of their teams on the line.
A Welsh rugby source confirmed to Gist Vile the radical move is on the table and that difficult decisions will have to be made if Welsh rugby is going to achieve success.
That said, the road to an agreement is likely to be a bumpy one. “Understandably, not everyone is singing from the same hymn sheet,” said another well-placed Welsh rugby source.
“We all know the game here is in a difficult position, but not everyone is convinced the answer is to reduce the number of professional teams and so compress the player pool at the top.
“Really, there has to be a long-term plan that is thought out and ensures the success of the national team as well as the regions, because if you don’t have a thriving Wales team you don’t have a thriving pro game.
“And to have a successful Welsh team you need four teams because of numbers.”
A proposed Scarlets-Ospreys merger three years ago hit the buffers amid much anger and furious claims, counter-claims and allegations from those involved. You can read all about that here.
Wales first introduced five teams when the game went regional in 2003, but the Celtic Warriors were axed within a year amid much acrimony.