Can a Welsh rugby region actually just be axed? The rules and legal action that would engulf the game

Like most things in life, saying a professional rugby team should be scrapped is the easy bit. Actually doing it? Not so much.

This week saw the emergence of the ‘Umbers Report’, which was commissioned by the Professional Rugby Board to assess the ‘strategic options’ available to the game’s administrators in Wales. The game here is at yet another crossroads following another season of unsatisfactory results on the field.

The regions failed to fire in Europe and missed out on the URC play-offs. One of them – the Ospreys and Scarlets are scrapping it out – will make the Champions Cup next season by virtue of being the top Welsh side. But it is only that which can be salvaged from the wreckage.

And so to the recommendations. One of a number of suggestions put forward in the report was that one of the four regions be scrapped. That once again put the Dragons in the firing line because they have been the weakest side in Wales for quite some time. It also threw the Ospreys back out on the edge due to the lack of ownership over their stadium.

READ MORE:Dean Ryan slams ‘unacceptable’ Welsh rugby situation

The recommendations from the report will go before the PRB at a meeting next week, so does that mean we’re on the verge of losing a region? Probably not.

First of all, it’s worth repeating that this is just one suggestion that was put forward in the report. Second of all, especially in the case of the Ospreys, the WRU cannot just snap their fingers and make a region disappear.

Say we reach a point where all members of the PRB agree the Ospreys should go, barring the region’s CEO Nick Garcia, it still couldn’t happen. The WRU could not simply cut off the payments they are duty-bound to fulfil by the Professional Rugby Agreement (PRA). Were they to do that, it would be a breach of contract and it would certainly end up in court.

The only way the Ospreys will cease to exist is if they pull the trigger themselves. This is why the failed merger between the Scarlets and Ospreys got close in 2019, because the regions involved wanted it to happen until the terms became too unpalatable for the Swansea-based side.

There is not a situation where the Ospreys can be forced out if they do not want to go, not without any move in that direction being completely engulfed by legal action. Given that they are under new ownership, and have made a series of off-field appointments which suggest Y11 are in it for the long haul, the prospect of them rolling over for the three remaining regions to prosper is highly unlikely. Indeed, they have been bullish in their response over the past 48 hours.

The Dragons are a slightly different case. The majority owners of the region are the WRU after they took over in 2017. Chairman David Buttress, who is a minority shareholder, had plans to take them back into private ownership but the Covid-19 pandemic was a major issue and the lack of clarity over the WRU’s funding going forward has slowed things down.

So if somebody had to go, the Dragons would be the easiest for the WRU but that then lends itself to another question – why would you want to, regardless of what it looks like on a balance sheet?

If it was all about the finances, the WRU would have let the Dragons fade away back in 2017 instead of taking on the relatively significant financial burden of keeping them alive. The opportunity was handed to them on a plate. But there was a realisation that cutting off Gwent would have been a mistake, whatever the region’s failings on the field.

Emotion can be a dangerous thing in business but there is emotion involved in these sorts of decisions that runs a hell of a lot deeper than any suggestion in a strategic report. There is a lazy notion that fans from the area suddenly deprived of elite rugby are going to flock to their nearest rival, in this case Cardiff. It is simply fanciful with no base in reality. It will never happen.

Keeping professional rugby alive at Rodney Parade is not the root of the problems Welsh rugby currently faces, and getting rid of them wouldn’t solve those problems either.

Then there is the real death knell for the idea of losing a region. TV revenues and competition money would be reduced by 25 percent. Private equity firm CVC would also reduce their investment in the game. In 2020, they acquired a 28 percent stake in the URC, which meant Welsh rugby came in for a windfall of circa £30 million, which was originally reported as arriving in five payments over three years.

Were Welsh rugby to reduce their number of entrants into the URC from four to three, then CVC would reduce any future payments by 25 percent. Welsh rugby is not in a position to forego that sort of income.

There is also said to be a clawback clause in the CVC agreement with the URC. They invested in a 14-team league and if that suddenly becomes a 13-team league, they’d be looking for some of their money back and knocking on the WRU’s door for it. Again, not a position the game’s governing body in these parts wants to be in given the already precarious financial position.

Then there is the playing side of things. Welsh rugby’s player base would be drastically reduced and opportunities for young talent within the region that got the chop would be hard to come by. Player development is already a problem in Wales and that is not solved by ostracising a quarter of your talent pool.

So on the surface, reducing the number of regions sounds like a quick fix and it has been discussed in the background for years. But when you open the bonnet and examine the mechanics of how it can actually work and what the real consequences are, then it shows it’s true colours.

It would be an ugly, protracted, drawn-out hurricane of legal proceedings.


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