CARDIFF, WALES – Welsh rugby should be in a happy place. The two-time defending Six Nations champions are favorites to lift the trophy yet again in March, and the national team certainly has the pieces in place to make a real run at the ultimate prize at the World Cup in 2015. Yet doomsday has come for Welsh rugby, as the Welsh Rugby Union board clashes destructively with the regional sides which have formed the cornerstone of player development for decades. For years, the regions (consisting of Cardiff Blues, Newport Gwent Dragons, Ospreys, and Scarlets) have contracted their own players, leaving stars such as Lee Byrne and Mike Phillips with a choice when their contract expired: take a significant pay cut to stay loyal to their hometown side, or go abroad and make what might be considered “market value” for their skills. Now, with the tide of Welsh players going abroad turning into a veritable flood rather than a trickle, the WRU is attempting to step in and centrally contract players. On Sunday, Sam Warburton signed the first central contract in Welsh rugby history, ensuring that the country’s captain will remain in Wales for years to come. The WRU plans to loan Warburton back to Cardiff at no cost, operating on a system based upon New Zealand’s productive central contracting model.
If Cardiff are receiving Warburton at no cost, and the club captain is to remain in the country, why are the Blues objecting so strenuously to the new system? The answer, as always, comes down to politics. The regions are afraid of losing their power to the WRU, failing to understand that the authority they may have once have possessed is long gone. On January 25, the same day that Warburton signed his WRU contract for £350,000, Cardiff went public with their final offer to the captain: £200,000. To be fair to Cardiff, Warburton has suited up more often for the national team than his club side in each of the last two years, providing a reasonable justification for their lower offer. However, despite the best arguments of the region’s apologists, the Blues didn’t lowball the flanker because he rarely plays for the team. They simply were unable to come up with the money to go any higher.
A number of factors have contributed to the dire fiscal position of the Welsh regions, and to a degree they are correct to be angry with the WRU’s insistence on competing in the Pro12, which is almost certainly less lucrative for the clubs than a potential arrangement with the Aviva Premiership. Former WRU CEO David Moffett rode in on his high horse on January 19, claiming that he could solve the crisis in ten days. His Twitter feed provides a good account of the hopeless state of affairs, as Moffett now spends his days tweeting not about solutions to the problems facing Wales, but instead bemoaning the inevitable failure of Welsh rugby. Cardiff Blues chairman Peter Thomas exacerbated existing tensions when he claimed the WRU “couldn’t run a corner shop” and “with them it’s all about control.”
Unfortunately for Welsh rugby fans, a solution does not appear to be imminent. Thus, on the eve of the Six Nations opener against Italy, the main talking point surrounding Wales will not involve the product on the pitch. Instead, it seems likely that the regions will set out on their own by signing an agreement with the Aviva Premiership, and thus splinter the nation’s rugby establishment once and for all. Neither side in this fight can lay claim to the moral high ground. Both are merely looking out for themselves, attempting to secure the largest piece of the pie that they possibly can. The Welsh Civil War is modern rugby at its worst, and supporters can only hope that things will all work out in the end. Sadly, nothing to date inspires any confidence in that outcome.