This weekend sees episode IV of Judgement Day, the chance to see all four Welsh Pro teams in one hit. Cardiff Blues v Ospreys and Newport Gwent Dragons v Scarlets.
It certainly rouses interest, especially over the last two years. 54k fans turned up to watch last year and as we can see from Pro 12 boss Martin Anyai’s tweet today 65k tickets have been sold for this year, with five days still to go.
Quite impressive right? Well, the day has certainly moved on somewhat, for sure. Back in 2014, Steve James in the Telegraph didn’t paint a terribly bright picture of proceedings. On the backdrop of political in-fighting were previous incarnations painted.
At the heart of the issue for the four pro Teams in Wales was cash – they need more of it to be properly competitive with the English and French. At that stage, Regional Rugby Wales were engaged in an unseemly scrap with Roger Lewis and the WRU. It appeared that the Welsh Rugby Union were manoeuvring to put the four teams they had set up in 2003 out of business. To wrest control and take ownership themselves.
Poorly negotiated sponsorship deals, poor remuneration for the work done by the pro teams to produce International players for the cash-cow that was and is Wales. Not a popular opinion – indeed, if you were to read the press at the time, with few notable exceptions, the blame rested solely with the teams themselves. Confused by Lewis debt reduction at WRU Towers, he was the shepherd, guiding unruly sheep,. and woe betide any that dare say otherwise.
Well, thankfully, those days are disappearing, slowly, but surely into the rear view mirror. New men are running the Union now. In Gareth Davies and Martyn Phillips, there’s a spirit of co-operation being fostered from bottom up, and it’s very positive. Regional Rugby Wales have re-branded themselves as Pro(fessional) Rugby Wales, with a more forward thinking attitude.
Of course there’s still a major shortfall, where money is concerned. At present, competing with the likes of England and France in Europe is a huge ask. Their collective might, and sharp business acumen, I might add, have seen them shape the rugby landscape in the Northern Hemisphere.
Their hijacking of the old Heineken Cup, making it what it is today, has seen many a voice raised in opposition. Across the water in Ireland, whose near monopoly of Europe in previous years has been eroded, there are many cries of “foul.”
Rightly or wrongly, and that’s a subject for a discussion on another day, the way those country’s clubs have run their ship has caused uproar. However, in Wales, it’s the model that has been chosen. That power-struggle was all about ensuring autonomy for the pro-game. It’s fair to say, that Union run rugby is not the way to go.
Again, there are arguments against allowing rich businessmen to come in and run up huge debts in the pursuit of trophies. However, there is little likelihood of these men walking away from their teams, leaving them in millions of £s or Euros of debt. With the sponsorship deals negotiated by the French, the upcoming new agreement to be signed by the PRL and the RFU, on top of their own TV monies, etc, the expert way they have built up their teams in their local areas, you can see the viability of what is being done.
It’s here that the Welsh teams need to catch up. Judgement Day still doesn’t hit the spot truly. Yes, it will be a fantastic “occasion.” But that’s the issue – it’s a day out in the big smoke. A day where fans, who pay their dues with season tickets, are relegated to poor view seats, whilst occasional fans get the best. A day where one team will lose a home game and the revenue that brings.
A day where, still, the WRU will end up profiting more than the clubs themselves. And that should not be the purpose of these days. For all it’s hype, and the fact that thousands of people will be exposed to Welsh Pro12 Rugby that normally wouldn’t, the bread and butter of these four clubs needs to move forward. Should the clubs themselves share equal proceeds from the day, perhaps that would be a start.
More so, should there be a spike in attendances at Parc-y-Scarlets, BT Sport Arms Park, Rodney Parade and the Liberty, that would help too. This year though, three teams still have an interest in league position. Why should they be thinking of “entertaining” or evangelising for fans at such an important stage of the season? Previous Days have had little or no effect on League attendances. It shouldn’t be asked of them to make this sacrifice at such an important time.
I will be attending, poor seat or no, but the WRU and PRW need to sit down soon and make some changes around this fixture. A big day such as this should benefit those involved, not the Union or Team Wales. Its a great “occasion” but moving forward more thought needs to be invested on how best to improve the day itself and the beneficiaries.
Hopefully, it will be a good day, but also, next time it will appear in a different guise – should there be a next time. If the clubs are intent on promoting there newfound professional outlook, this will be one of the things they look at to change, in some way. Fundamentally, it hasn’t worked so far, unless bums on seats for someone else’s gain is the aim. Let’s hope, for the sake of these four teams, we see a different approach in the future. Go along by all means and enjoy – its a good day out. But right now, fundamentally, that’s all it is.