BRISTOL, ENGLAND – Bristol, titans of the English game, are on the verge of signing one of the greatest props in Welsh history. According to reports in the British media, Adam Jones, out of contract with Ospreys, is ready to join the RFU Championship club, joining Wales national teammate Ian Evans in the English second tier. By any measure, this is a truly damning indictment of Welsh rugby. Getting to a place where one of your most heralded players is willing to play in purgatory rather than endure the regional system any longer is a result of massive institutional failures. Today, we try to look at where it all went wrong.
Wales has long punched above their weight in the Six Nations. The smallest nation by population in the competition, the Welsh have traditionally belied their size to field strong teams. The last four years have formed a genuine golden generation, starring in a World Cup semi-final, running through the Six Nations twice, and forming the backbone of a victorious British and Irish Lions tour. However, simultaneously with this rise in the national team’s fortunes, the regions have been quickly losing their grip on the game. Youth involvement in rugby in Wales is down precipitously, and the regional sides which have formed the basis for grassroots involvement in the past were crippled by the introduction of the four “super-regional” sides; Ospreys, Scarlets, Newport Gwent Dragons, and Cardiff Blues. None of these four are able to truly financially support themselves in the era of escalating player wages, so the Wales Rugby Union introduced a proposal where certain players would be centrally contracted. The regions revolted claiming (correctly) that they would become glorified subsidiaries of the WRU. However, their objections fail to recognize a fundamental reality of rugby in 2014. Without money, you are unable to compete, and the regions do not have any money, or any realistic way to access the funds to retain their players who could (and now are) literally making millions of pounds across the Channel. A standoff between the WRU and regions resulted, and WRU financial support of the regions ended completely on June 30, when a previous contractual agreement expired.
At the moment, the Welsh captain, Sam Warburton will not be playing club rugby next year. After signing the first central contract in Welsh history, English clubs won’t touch him, the Welsh regions refuse to recognize his contract as legitimate. Next year, Leigh Halfpenny is heading to France while Richard Hibbard will be playing for Gloucester. This follows a season that saw Jamie Roberts, Dan Lydiate, and George North left the regional scene. More than half of Wales’ starters now ply their trade elsewhere, and all seven were key cogs in Gatland’s Lions side. Hyperbole is all to common in sports writing, but Welsh rugby is truly standing on a precipice from which there may be no return.
The RRW (representing the Welsh regions as a collective whole) issued a statement, claiming “the control, commercial and financial conditions that are being demanded of them under drafts of the proposed new service agreement would be completely unacceptable for any responsible independent business to enter into and expose itself to.” Quite apart from ending a sentence with a preposition, the statement revealed a number of issues with the RRW’s outlook on the situation. Clearly, the regions fail to understand the reality of modern business. Without the ability to support themselves, they can no longer be, by definition, an independent business. It is absolutely true that the WRU’s terms would destroy the last vestiges of the celebrated regional system, which was the pride of Wales for decades. However, it is a new world. Sentimentally, the RRW holds the high ground, but if Wales wishes to remain competitive on the world stage, they must adapt. The WRU has handled the situation abysmally, and should be embarrassed by the actions of their chairman, which has irreparably harmed the organizations reputation within both Welsh and international circles. Ultimately though, the failure of the regions to understand the modern world demonstrates that they are not fit stewards for the game in Wales.
That’s it for now. Feel free to comment below, please look for and “Like” our Facebook Rugby Wrap Up Page and follow us on Twitter@:RugbyWrapUp, Junoir Blaber, Nick Hall, James Harrington, Jamie Wall, Jaime Loyd, DJ Eberle, Cody Kuxmann, Karen Ritter, Jake Frechette and Declan Yeats, respectively.