As the Welsh regions prepare for the second round of European competition, the true toll of supporting the national cause is becoming clear. Peter Jackson argues that Wales’ Test match schedule – which included a massive 20 Tests in the past year – undermines any hope of the regions being competitive.
Sir Gareth Edwards never missed a match for Wales and yet it still took him more than 11 years to compile his unbroken sequence of 53 Tests.
They came at the rate of five-a-year because that was how it used to be back then, a time when those running the sport preserved the magnetic appeal of international competition by restricting fixtures to a minimum.
Had he started half a century later and reigned over the same period, his cap collection would have reached 150.
Where Wales and the other home countries used to average five matches a year, they now average almost three times as many.
The much-spouted concern about player welfare has done nothing to stop the escalation of Test rugby, from 10-a-year to 13 and rising.
For the 12 months from Saturday November 3 last year to the World Cup final in Yokohama three weeks ago, Wales played 20 Tests, as did England.
While England’s clubs are better able to absorb the loss of their best players because of the Gallagher Premiership’s greater commercial clout, the four Welsh regions tend to suffer irreparable damage.
Nobody has given the Ospreys more since their creation than Alun Wyn Jones and yet the ever-increasing demands of the Test arena plus the inevitable wear-and-tear explain why he played no more than six times for his region over the last 12 months.
During that time Jones appeared 17 times for Wales. George North played 15 matches for Wales, six for the Ospreys.
The Scarlets can reasonably claim to have been hit hardest. Jonathan Davies, Ken Owens, Gareth Davies and Hadleigh Parkes all appeared twice as often for the national team as they did for the region.
No wonder that one week into another Champions’ Cup season finds Wales farther away than ever from providing a contender good enough to be taken seriously.
It cuts deeper than merely losing players for large tracts of the year. Colateral damage has taken a heavy toll and will continue to do so throughout the seven remaining months of the season.
Gareth Anscombe’s knee injury during the summer money-spinner at Twickenham means that Wales’ first choice No.10 will have to wait until next season to make his debut for the Ospreys.
None of the other 19 clubs who are competing in Europe’s premier competition can have paid a higher price for supporting their national cause.
Instead of introducing Anscombe for a challenging debut against Munster in last week’s opening tie – and this weekend’s daunting trip to Saracens – the Swansea-based region were further handicapped by North’s return from Japan in a hamstrung condition.
Of their World Cup elite, only Nicky Smith and Bradley Davies, members of the supporting cast in Japan, were involved last week and then only from the bench.
In contrast, Munster started with no fewer than seven of Ireland’s heavy-hitters, not that they did enough of it during their journey through the Orient to avoid a depressingly early exit from the tournament.
As the lone Welsh qualifier it will take something bordering on the miraculous for the Ospreys to prevent the perennial wipe-out of Wales from the last eight.
Anscombe’s absence is merely the tip of an iceberg. The Scarlets, excluded from the Champions’ Cup for the first time, are these days in the secondary European event, the Challenge Cup.
They are also feeling the pain of another World Cup near miss.
Rhys Patchell will be missing for three months following shoulder surgery, Jonathan Davies for the entire season after wrecking a knee during the World Cup.
Far from levelling out, the playing field for the four regional teams becomes steeper every winter, a seasonal reminder that the Welsh have become the poor relations of Europe.
Peter Jackson appears courtesy of The Rugby Paper