Club rugby in Wales has been at a crossroads for several years now but with an increasing number of players choosing to play outside of Wales and a big decision coming regarding whether to stay with the English teams in the Rugby Champions Cup or crawl back to the Heineken Cup, it seems that the long-term future of regional rugby could be decided within the next few months.
The four Welsh regional teams–Dragons, Scarlets, Blues, and Ospreys–are stuck in a difficult position. Simply put, they have no money. Think about it. Wales has a population of only three million people and only three cities of more than 100,000 people. Compare that to Scotland which has a population of five million and only has two teams. Ireland has over six million people and four teams yet have more large cities than Wales. There isn’t enough people to attend matches, buy merchandise, or watch on television.
In Wales there isn’t a big enough base to form four solid teams. Sure they have fans turn out to matches with the four regions falling only behind Leinster, Munster, and Ulster in average attendance. But at the same time their combined average attendance last year was 8,136, which is not enough to if you want to have big ambitions. It’s especially not enough if you want to keep some of the best players in the world.
No matter if the regions decide to stay in the Rugby Champions Cup or return to the Heineken Cup they are due to receive more money. However, they French teams they are competing with for their top players are going to receive a boost of two million Euros just for staying in the Heineken Cup. They will get similar amount of money for the Rugby Champions Cup. That is more than enough to compete. Even if the Welsh Rugby Union chips in more money it still probably won’t be enough to keep the likes of Sam Warburton.
Players like George North, Luke Charteris, Dan Lydiate, Mike Phillips, and James Hook, all of whom were included on the Welsh team this November, have already discovered that they can both play for a team outside of Wales and the Welsh National Team. Sure there are problems that arise every now and then but by and large it hasn’t been a problem. What’s to stop a player like Alex Cuthbert, Leigh Halfpenny, Toby Faletau, or Warburton do the same?
The regions have been incredibly successful at developing players. It’s too bad that the leaders of the Welsh Rugby Union can understand that they can have thriving regions, happy and rich players overseas, and a successful national team. As many pundits have pointed out by having players go outside Wales to play rugby they are picking up skills that make Wales a more dynamic team.
The solution to the problem for both the regions and the Welsh Rugby Union is to get in the business of selling their best players for a transfer fee. What is the point of developing a player if they are just going to leave when their contract is up? In the football/soccer world you see this happen all the time. Look at the Dutch. Almost every Dutch team is in the business of developing players for sale and the Dutch team reached the final of the 2010 World Cup with a squad of players playing in different leagues.
The trick going forward is for the Welsh Rugby Union and the regions to work with players and other clubs to develop the transfer system. Currently in rugby it’s at a basic level but if the Welsh clubs maximized their advantage they can turn it into an advantage. Players like Warburton want to help the Welsh regions so what better way to do that than negotiate a fee for your old club? Under this system the Welsh regions would be able to keep wages down and make money. It would be a turnaround that would keep them solvent and even possibly lend itself to a fifth region. Younger players would also see more time in top flight rugby, developing even more players for the future.
Will it happen? Probably not. There are too many disparate interests to make it work. The Welsh Rugby Union is too fixated on one extra fixture here and there to allow players to go overseas. Frankly they need the money generated from the tests. But with more transfer money coming in it may offset the need for an extra match. Welsh rugby is one of the most dynamic and interesting parts of the global rugby. It would be a shame if it faded. However, there is hope if reasonable people get together and figure out a way forward that benefits all sides.