It was just about the worst weekend for Welsh rugby that most of us can remember.
Wayne Pivac’s senior side became the first team to lose a Six Nations game to Italy in seven years, while the U20s were outclassed by the Azzurrini up in Colwyn Bay. Then, out in South Africa, there were crushing defeats for the Scarlets and the Cardiff, with all four regions now in the bottom half of the United Rugby Championship.
But merely listing the disasters doesn’t really get us anywhere. The question is how do we turn things round? What are the potential solutions to the crisis and where do we go from here? Rugby correspondent Simon Thomas looks at the key issues which need to be addressed.
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There has been a lot of talk of late about the need to separate the professional and the amateur game in Wales. But what exactly are we talking about here?
Well, if you look at the current structure, the pro game is – in theory – run by the Professional Rugby Board. That’s the joint body made up of representatives from the WRU and the four regions. It’s just acquired a new chair in Malcolm Wall, a media industry executive who fills the vacancy created by the abrupt departure of Aviva boss Amanda Blanc.
As he surveys the rubble of the weekend, former Harlequins chairman Wall could be forgiven for wondering just what he has taken on. But, in truth, it’s questionable just how much scope he – or the body he heads up – will have to change things for the better.
The reality is the ultimate power still lies elsewhere in Welsh rugby – with the amateur clubs. Via their district representatives, they continue to hold the majority on the WRU board, which carries the real clout. Any major policy change has to be ratified by that board, with the people who run the Union on a day-to-day basis answerable to them.
No-one questions the contribution the club men on the board have made to the game in Wales, not least its chairman Rob Butcher, who has given long years of service to Bargoed RFC. But their expertise surrounds the community game and that’s what they should be in charge of.
The professional game is a world away and that needs to be run by people with high-level experience in business and sporting administration. At present, the tail continues to wag the dog with the amateur game retaining the ultimate power and there is a reluctance on their part to relinquish that control.
Former chairman Gareth Davies attempted to modernise the governance by streamlining the WRU board and speeding up the decision-making process. But he was only able to get so far and, in the end, the clubs voted him out, reasserting their control.
The WRU is a multi-million pound business, with that income being generated by the professional game, yet it is still ultimately governed by the amateur arm of the sport which employs the paid staff. Until we achieve separation of governance, with the pro game truly able to shape its own destiny, it’s hard to see real progress being made.
Money isn’t the only factor in professional sport, but it is by the far the most important one. Generally, you get what you pay for.
In structural terms, the closest comparison to Wales is Ireland, which also has four professional sides. Yet the contrast in fortunes is extreme.
Right now, Irish rugby is in rude health. The national team has just won the Triple Crown, the U20s the Grand Slam and they have three sides in the top four of the URC. The story over here is a very different one.
So what are the Irish doing right that we are doing wrong? Well, you have to go back to the late 1990s to trace the evolution. Back then, Leinster were playing in front of crowds of 2,000 at Donnybrook, with the Irish sides not making much of an impact in the very early years of Europe.
But over the past two decades, there has been a sustained investment in the pro game by the IRFU and the results are there for all to see. It has generated success, which has generated crowds, which in turn has generated yet more income and more success. It’s a virtuous circle.
You only have to look at the respective Union accounts to see the contrast in the spending on the pro game in Wales and Ireland. A different attitude prevails here, with the WRU focussed on investing in capital projects, such as the new Parkgate Hotel on Westgate Street, which has become a symbol of what many feel is wrong about our direction of travel.
We also hear talk of the £51m of CVC Six Nations money being spent on a venture into the brewing market or a stadium roof-top experience. The logic is such projects will generate future income, but the question is what state will the Welsh pro game be in when that revenue comes on tap?
That CVC cash could be seen as rainy day money and, as one regional figure, said to me “It’s p***ing down outside”. The core business of the WRU is pro rugby, yet there is a reluctance to invest in that, with a view to speculate to accumulate. Chief executive Steve Phillips has made it pretty clear he feels investing directly in the regions is not the best way to get a return, so we are where we are.
It means funding for the pro teams continues to hinge wholly on the strict terms of the Professional Rugby Agreement, with payments dictated by the available pot of annual income. As ever, it’s important to remember these are indeed payments and not handouts, as some people like to term them. They are payments from the WRU for services provided, primarily access to players for all Wales squad duties. One big issue is the ongoing uncertainty surrounding the overall figure, which makes it hard to plan for the future.
Last year, it was announced that the PRA payment pot for 2022-23 would go up to £23.5m, but there was a caveat. Phillips pointed out it was “projected funding” which would be “subject to fluctuation depending on circumstance”. In other words, it depends how much money is generated by the international game and that’s where the problem lies.
The last two Six Nations matches against France and Italy saw more than 20,000 empty seats, which means a heck of a lot of lost revenue, while Wales finishing fifth meant another £1m or so shortfall in prize money. All of this leaves the pro teams waiting to find out exactly how much they will receive.
It’s questionable whether the £23.5m projection will materialise in full and so it’s going to leave them a long way south of the playing budgets of the Irish sides. That means they will continue to struggle to compete, unable to build the quality in depth you need with star players away on international duty for so much of the season.
So there we have it. Everyone recognises the regions need more financial resource in order to strengthen their squads and appoint top coaches to enable them to become more competitive. But, for that to happen, there needs to be a change in mindset and strategy at the top of the Welsh game.
Without that change, the regions will wither still further and Team Wales will wither with them, as they are the supply chain. International crowds will then diminish, which will mean less money again for the pro teams, and we will end up not with a virtuous circle, but a vicious one.
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How many pro teams?
This is the other question that always gets posed after a bad weekend for the regions, so we have been hearing it a lot recently. You get the same suggestions made each time. Some call for a reduction to just two regions – East and West. Others want to see a return to the old set-up of nine clubs.
A couple of thoughts here. Given how unpopular the regional concept has been, going even more regional hardly seems the best way forward. As for returning to a multi-club elite structure, we can hardly afford four professional sides, let alone nine.
The more realistic question is can we sustain the existing four? There is an argument that if we can’t – or won’t – resource them to be competitive, then we have to consider the alternatives to the unsatisfactory status quo. Cutting to three pro teams would be one solution, but who decides which side goes and would that really be the best option given it would significantly reduce the playing pool? There would also be the consideration that cutting to three would mean less TV and competition money, with current contracts based around Wales entering four pro teams.
The other idea which has been floated from time to time is a 2+2 set-up, with two of the regions resourced to a higher level to enable them to compete for silverware. But which two teams would be willing to accept second-tier status? It’s back to the old turkeys voting for Christmas situation. Moreover, how would their fans feel about that? So the debate will go on, but it is getting to the point where hard decisions have to be made.
The tier below
For years now, we’ve been talking about what the level below the pro game should look like. What should serve as the stepping stone up to senior regional rugby?
We’ve tried lots of different things. There have been various kinds of regional development sides, competing in the British & Irish Cup, the Celtic Cup and in Welsh A-team friendlies. Alongside that, there has been the Premiership, where the number of clubs has fluctuated on a regular basis.
So where do we stand right now? Well, it’s all a bit muddled and unclear. Covid has had a huge impact, putting a halt to all rugby below pro level for a lengthy period. But now that we are returning to something like normality, a decision needs to be made once and for all what the development tier should be.
Where should our talented Academy products play their rugby and gain experience to prepare them for the step-up to senior level? Should it be in regional A teams or should it be in the Premiership?
The former has cost implications in terms of the squad numbers you require, while the standard of the league remains a question with the latter. As present, you have some regions running occasional development games, while Cardiff have opted to utilise their semi-pro club side as their second string.
If the Premiership is to be the preferred option across the board, then there is an argument for making it an eight-team competition, with two sides from each region, to raise standards by making it more elite. But clearly that would be likely to run into opposition from clubs who would miss out. Yet, once again, we have reached the point where hard decisions need to be made.
The hugely disappointing U20s campaign has once again thrown a spotlight on the development structure. Finding the right environment for our rising stars to play in, providing them with regular rugby at a suitable level has to be a priority. There may well be lessons to be learned from what has happened in Italy, where Conor O’Shea went in and put a long-term development strategy in place. The results of that are now there for all to see with their U20s.
Essentially, we need a clear pathway to excellence for our young talent, one that needs to be properly coached and financed, with regular rugby at the right level an absolute priority.
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This remains the crucial starting point, where kids first take up the game. Moving forward, a conversation needs to be had over the best way to support the community clubs and schools in providing that launch pad.
In particular, firm decisions need to be made at schools level. Do you look to focus on a limited number of elite rugby schools or look to increase numbers playing the game across the education system?
We also need to find some way of tackling the continuing issue of talented Welsh kids being lured away to attend English schools and colleges, with their top-level rugby facilities. They often then link up with English club Academies and can be lost to our domestic game for a number of years. Investment in a sixth form educational establishment with a strong rugby focus here in Wales would be something certainly worth looking at as a long-term project.
To my mind, one of the other key needs is to have more all-weather pitches in place. Few things put kids off rugby more than having matches called off on a regular basis due to the elements. It sees them lose interest and drift away. But perhaps nothing increases the number of youngsters taking up the game like success at senior level and having heroes to aspire to.
All of which brings us back to the here and now and the fortunes of the Wales team. Following the shock defeat to Italy which meant a fifth-place finish in the Six Nations, head coach Wayne Pivac insisted all that would be forgotten if he guides the team to the knock-out stages of the World Cup.
But, at this moment in time, you wouldn’t be entirely confident of that happening, with Australia, Fiji and even Georgia providing the hurdles. Pivac is a real rugby man and has been behind some memorable moments with both the Scarlets and Wales. However, that performance against Italy was one of the worst in years and it does make you fear for the future.
The main concern is there doesn’t seem to be a coherent plan either in terms of his ever-tinkering team selection or the style of play, while the two key problem areas – the breakdown and the attack – remain unaddressed.
It doesn’t get any easier with a three-Test tour of South Africa coming up. That has a real brutal feel to it. Pivac’s position is probably safe for now, but we need to see signs this summer and then in the autumn that he actually knows what his best team is and how he wants them to play. If not, then another hard decision will have to be made.
At the same time, if he does turn things round and Wales perform well, that mustn’t be allowed to paper over the cracks as international success has done in the past, otherwise we will just be back here again in years to come. Change is needed and radical change at that.