What Recent Developments May Mean for Welsh Rugby

“I don’t like the central control thing, I don’t necessarily believe in it. The way I look at it is there are things that make sense to do together and things that it makes sense to stay well away from.” WRU CEO Martyn Phillips during WalesOnLine Interview with Simon Thomas 5th January 2017

It came as a bit of a surprise this week to hear that the WRU are apparently planning a takeover of the struggling Dragons outfit, in light of the above comments only a couple of months ago.

They shouldn’t be taken in isolation I suppose.  The interview was headlined “WRU boss Martyn Phillips gives his blunt verdict on 16 Big issues facing the future of Welsh rugby.”  Number 5, of the Big Issues was The Regions.

It was encouraging to read a positive take on the relationship as it stands now.  Phillips spoke of a new trust leading to “grittier conversations” and said interestingly, “with trust comes compassionate ruthlessness.”

Of course, the honesty mentioned is a plus following the toxic circumstances of Roger Lewis’s time in the hot seat. By the time he had departed there was no sort of relationship at all between the clubs and the Union.  It’s a path well-trodden, but Lewis’s obsession with clearing the Stadium debt, and investing any spare money into the National team almost led the game to destruction.

It’s perfectly fair to observe that there was no movement on development of the four Professional teams for at least the last three years of Lewis’ tenure. Most of that time was spent haggling over the new Rugby Services Agreement, a document that is so juvenile in its make-up, neither party is willing to make it available for public viewing.

This in stark contrast to the agreement English Clubs have with the RFU and is an extremely sad state of affairs.  There is a sense that across the border the two groups are working together without being too constrained by the agreement, but it’s there in the background. The woefully low compensation for the clubs for International player release contributes to the struggles of the four teams.

This weekend, only the Ospreys have had players released to them for vital Pro12 matches. However some of the players retained have no chance of selection for the Ireland game on Friday night. It’s an appalling situation, that has not resulted in the proper questioning of a system that is not contributing anything to the growth of the sides trying to progress in the domestic competition.

The 6th big issue Phillips addressed centred on certain comments made earlier in the month by Cardiff Chairman Peter Thomas regarding the future of the Pro Teams in Wales. In an interview with Simon Thomas on 3rd January 2017, Peter Thomas made some startling statements.   When asked about the state of Pro Rugby in Wales at the time his response was

We all realise there has to be major change for the professional game in Wales because as we sit and speak the car crash is about to happen and Rome is burning. We recognise this and we have to make the changesWe all realise we can not compete in either the Pro12 or Europe when we are working on squad costs of £4m to £5m while the Irish and the Scots are at £6.5m to £7m and the English clubs are up at £8m. In fairness to the Welsh Rugby Union, they understand this. If we want to win titles, we have to change what we have got because what we have got is not working. That’s what I mean when I say Rome is burning.”

On the question of how to address the financial imbalance, Peter Thomas again referred to the improved relationship and talked of embarking on a new “set-up for pro rugby in Wales.”  He also mentioned the resurrection of the Professional Rugby Game Board  a joint venture between Regional Rugby Wales and the WRU, that was set up under Lewis but met only once, before it was unsurprisingly shelved.

Later in the interview asked if the funding system needed tweeking Pete Thomas said “It needs changing and we are in the process of putting those changes into place.”

Throughout the interview though, the Cardiff Chairman seemed keen to emphasise the necessity of four Pro Teams being in place, though not in what guise, being as strong they possibly could be, with the intention of a Welsh team winning the European Cup within the next ten years.

This brings us back to the initial question of the Newport Gwent Dragons.  The 8th issue of the interview with Martyn Phillips was concerned with the Dragons.  “What would a well run, successful professional team look like?  We are not where we want to be with the Dragons, but it’s my job to help it get there.”

A pretty damning statement in fairness and Phillips went further. It goes on. “You couldn’t say no to (to the WRU taking the Dragons over)….If it came to that we’d have to look at it and whether we could afford it, but my view is that professional rugby clubs going forward have to have a combination of union funding and private investment.”

Now, this whole piece is based on the premise that the Dragons’ story which broke this week is accurate.  If it is, what has changed in two months in terms of the feasibility of taking over the Dragons?  It seems to me that if the Union does consider it feasible, there would have been some serious investigation already underway at the time of the original interview, as Phillips doesn’t look like the sort of man to shoot from the lip, unlike his predecessor.

Further questions immediately come to mind How would that move look?  Would it be long term?  Peter Thomas’ ideas of greater co-operation, and the suggestion of improved funding streams suggest that there are concerted efforts to alter the whole set-up in the Pro game in Wales.  There’s no talk of an amendment to the Rugby Services Agreement.  Surely, that would be the way forward if that’s what is desired. But if not why not?

Martyn Phillips asserted that central control was not his favoured model, but now, within months, there is a plan to take control of one of the Pro teams.

I’m not necessarily a fan of central control.  Of course, Ireland and more recently Glasgow have been successful domestically under that system, but Wales’s pro game would be a hybrid model: three clubs funded under the RSA and the fourth getting their share, plus a little bit on top. Why should the other teams sit back and accept this apparent unfairness? And equally important, where would the money come from to make both the purchase and operation of the Dragons a success?

The impression I get from all of this, is that there is a movement to massively alter the way rugby is administered in Wales.  In Ireland, it’s already been mentioned that the money is running dry, and the four Provinces need to start attracting some private investment to keep the system working.

I feel that the reverse may well be under way here in Wales.  More control will be ceded centrally, which will change the landscape of the whole game.  There’s plenty more in the Martyn Phillips’ interview worth discussing, especially relating to the involvement of the Valleys, and it may be what was not said by the WRU man may well be more pertinent than what actually was.