A decade in the making

Today’s defeat in Ireland was as predictable as it was depressing.

Yes, Ireland were efficient and well-drilled, and Wales weren’t. Yes, the selection was confused from the start and it’s becoming increasingly difficult to see what the Welsh coaches are trying to achieve. Yes, Welsh players were flat, uninspired, and made a stream of unforced errors. And yes, Jaco Peyper’s performance was beyond bad – he spotted not a single penalisable Irish transgression for the first 55 minutes, not even Porter folding at pretty much every scrum, and waited until the penalty count was 13-2 and the scoreboard read 29-0 before taking the usual URC-refereeing approach of trying his best to even up the penalty count in the last quarter. Wales were so bad, they couldn’t even take advantage of that.

All that said, such was the gulf in quality between the two teams that Wales were lucky to get away with “just” a 29-7 defeat.

But readers of Wales’ most misanthropic forum for the maladjusted rugby supporter – that’s this one, obviously – will be aware that these pages have been predicting the collapse of Welsh rugby for the best part of a decade.

Sure, the shop window of the national team did relatively well at times throughout the 2010s, but the foundations on which those successes were based were eroding at an alarming rate. They were eroding thanks to the (mis)management of the game by the WRU.

The scale of today’s beating – set next to the travails of representative age-grade teams and the professional clubs – suggests that Welsh rugby’s decline is unlikely to stop any time soon.

This is bad, but we are nowhere near rock bottom yet.

The WRU’s culpability is evident, all-encompassing and, for the most part, barely known by the majority of those who will have watched today’s game.

The Welsh game in the middle of the first decade of this century stood in rude health. There was success at Test and professional level, and the WRU’s finance director is even said to have bragged – at a WRU AGM – about having so much money to play with that he decided to just pay off the WRU’s debt more quickly than required.

Tellingly, the WRU didn’t think, at a time in which the game was flourishing, of investing in the game.

The 2010s saw the relationship between the WRU and the nation’s professional teams deteriorate alarmingly. It wouldn’t be overselling it to suggest that, under Roger Lewis, the WRU went to war with the clubs. The clubs fought back – Ospreys chairman Robert Davies letting rip at the WRU in this infamous exchange. They gained concessions, including a stake in European competition, and the establishment of a new Professional Rugby Board with an independent chair.

For a period, under Martyn Phillips and Gareth Davies as CEO and chairman respectively, matters stabilised.

It wouldn’t last.  The tail – in a system in which, incredibly, a village club has a right to pass judgement on a professional sporting business – reasserted its right to wag the dog.

The clubs turfed out Gareth Davies, Martyn Phillips left, and the community clubs appointed a retired geography teacher as chairman.

The WRU continued to bleed the professional clubs, taking one over and trying to engineer a merger between others in what became unaffectionately known as Project Shambles.

When the league in which the professional clubs play was sold to CVC, the WRU nabbed the windfall for itself. No, the estimated £35m wouldn’t go through the PRB – this was the Union’s money, and they would decide how it was spent.

CVC then bought a stake in the Six Nations, worth about £50m to the Welsh game. The WRU would keep all that money for itself, too. Would it invest in the professional game? Well, maybe. But not until it had built its own hotel (which, it’s worth saying, can’t even sell out its rooms on the evening of a 6 Nations game against Scotland in Cardiff). Oh, and maybe a roofwalk.

Covid reduced the WRU’s 2020-21 payments to the clubs from an expected £26m to £3m. The WRU first let the RFU lead on discussions with the UK Government, until a deal was announced by UK Government to support English sporting bodies (including the RFU) only, and the WRU suddenly realised that they should have been talking to Welsh Government all along. So they took out a loan to make up much of the difference, but landed the clubs with the job of repaying it. Never fear, they said, we’ll work with Welsh Government on improving the terms of the deal. Nearly a year later, there is no resolution and the clubs remain saddled with a multi-million pound debt which isn’t theirs.

The PRB became neutered, and lost a key figure in its independent chair Amanda Blanc. Peter Thomas, of Cardiff Rugby, declared her departure a “disaster”. Months later, the reasons for her departure remain a mystery.

If the intention is that the PRB provides a risk-reward incentive, it has succeeded.

The professional clubs take the risk – all of it. The Union takes the reward – also all of it.

Welsh rugby is in real trouble. If you cut off your supply chain, and prioritise the Test team above everything else, the lack of care taken of the roots of the elite game will eventually choke off the top of the game. The stream of quality players generated by the clubs from 2004-2012 has reduced to a trickle. The professional teams are weak and getting weaker. Supporters are walking away.

So blame the regions for losing games and not attracting crowds. Blame them for not generating enough players of quality (last night’s U20s game was a bleak portent of what may be to come at senior level). Blame Pivac and his coaches for selection, for preparation. Blame the players for their errors. All of that can be justified.

But today is on the WRU.

It is difficult to avoid coming to the conclusion that it is only when Bob Geog and Dai Expenses experience regular 6 Nations humiliations in front of their fellow blazers that they will stop to wonder. Wonder whether they should do something. Wonder whether they should have done something sooner. Wonder whether building a hotel and a roofwalk when the clubs are dying is the best idea. Wonder whether they should separate the governance of the professional game from the community game. Wonder whether – as Dai Young has said – they should fund the professional game to the levels which the IRFU fund their professional teams.

Or even wonder whether they’re up to the job?

They aren’t.

The excellent CF10 Blog has even been moved to ask whether the greatest threat to Welsh rugby is the WRU?

It is.

4 comments

  1. Spot on. Then the drip drip effect that the cash cow that is the Principality Stadium will only be such a provider as long Team Wales are worth watching. Increasing difficulty getting to and from games. Add to that the knee jerk and over reaction to a few (very few) unpleasant experiences due the over indulgence by some. A further reduction in income, that of the bars offering lower alcoholic refreshments probably at the usual exorbitant prices.

    Like

  2. Quite forensic and a depressing indictment on the games structure in Wales. Much to agree on but I do differ in my opinion where the real roots of the professional game are.

    I believe the regions don’t want to accept that the real talent pool is club youth rugby.

    That idea doesn’t sit with their belief in their game and business plan which involves getting control of rugby in Wales and predicated in cutting all remaining ties with the grass roots clubs.

    There is a fatal flaw in that plan and it starts with the Academies and the link to the ‘Coleg’ system. This structure is the rugby equivalent to inbreeding.

    Colegs are generally populated with Johnny’s that aspirational parents have fought tooth and nail to get into the system, believing they have spawned the next big thing, notwithstanding a healthy sprinkling of traditional Welsh rugby nepotism. They do not represent the majority of young rugby playing talent in Wales.

    Overwhelmingly the acadamies are fed by these coleg constructs and yes some good players will emerge as the law of averages dictates but if the Regions looked further than their prejudice and beyond their apparent disdain, they would go out and watch club youth rugby.

    Tough competition with players who play every week, not every few months and don’t spend most of their time in gyms and rugby robotics classes. They just happen to not always follow faux academic or coleg paths.

    What happens if the Regions get their way and all funding goes via their board, wages within the artificial gene pool go up, more foreign talent probably comes in.

    Money money money won’t in and of itself be a panacea, rugby in the grass roots clubs will suffer and the only authentic pathway into the game withers away with less tag and junior sections, youth teams and more football teams.

    We could end up with much of less if a player base and the roots continue to rot silently just out of sight.

    Liked by 1 person

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