Most of Welsh rugby’s 2018-19 fixture list is out and dates in the diary have been ringed. What hasn’t happened, argues Geraint Powell, is any real attempt to fit the various tiers together so that it all makes sense.
Nothing illustrates the disjointed nature of the regional tier of Welsh professional rugby more than the annual release of the Pro14 fixtures.
Regional rugby is a complete package, always has been and always will be if you want to obtain most of the resource concentration synergies in relation to increased earning and more efficient expenditure. Tying everything together at the end is where the biggest benefits accrue.
Welsh regional rugby has only ever had piecemeal adopted elements of the package and has suffered the financial consequences.
This summer the non-alignment is highlighted more starkly than ever, with the regional game somewhat in a state of structural limbo.
The reasons are well known.
Firstly, the last of the “general committee” Welsh Rugby Union boards of directors is on the verge of extinction as part of proposed governance reforms this October.
It is way too late for many of these long-serving WRU directors to change their legacy away from one of expedited stadium debt repayment in the absence of group subsidiary, non-Test professional teams. Or “keeping the game poor” as former executive David Moffett described it.
They will collectively have little enthusiasm for a sudden final spending splurge on the regional game.
If the widespread view in the future is that expedited stadium debt repayment was the correct WRU approach, they would be destroying their legacy. If the view were to be the opposite, they would receive little credit for a final spending spree now.
Secondly, against this background, and with no domestic TV deals due elsewhere in the next few years, the recent emphasis has inevitably been upon the need to increase the financing of the regions before “the funding gap” with the English and – particularly – the French clubs again sees another player exodus. And another tier quality crisis, potentially leading to collapses or bailouts.
The WRU Senior Player Selection Policy has been toughened, the “stick” to deter another exodus being the withholding of Test caps to any exiled player with less than 60 caps. The “carrot”, for the players, inevitably, has to be better funded Welsh regions.
Additional resourcing can hardly come from within the regional game ownership, where, after 15 years, there is serious debt fatigue even at the thought of covering current operational losses at the three still nominally independent regions.
Given the WRU funding limitations (above), beyond the leeway of necessary equal treatment of all the regions from the governing body, the key above all else was in securing a major broadcaster boost for the Pro14 tournament.
This has been secured from new entrant Premier Sports but, when any urgent cash injection is needed, long term business planning beyond that primary TV revenue aim becomes difficult. The broadcaster rules supreme.
Thirdly, and although there is a sense of structural limbo, it does not mean that nothing is happening in the background.
Quite the opposite, for a new designated regions contract is being finalised.
The non-Test tier of Welsh professional rugby, that great “anti-business” of the modern Welsh economy, is gradually being made subject to commercial principles. The days of the “rich man’s toy” – in truth the regions became too expensive as toys long ago – are over.
Investment-blocking internal debt mountains are being converted into equity, balance sheets are being cleaned-up. Off message directors are to step aside from executive responsibility, better qualified independent directors to come in. Back office functions are to be streamlined, joint procurement and marketing to drive efficiency. No more off-field amateurism.
Little talk of services rendered anymore, more realistic talk of greater WRU cross-subsidies of the regions if they get their own houses in order as businesses engaging with rugby consumers and feeding the financial engine of the Test team.
Indeed, business principles are rapidly being adopted as the agent of ever evolving change going forwards, to finally drag Welsh regional rugby kicking and screaming into the 21st century.
But, in the here and now, we have the legacy problems.
We have four regions commercially fishing in a small two million people pond of limited wealth in South Wales, geographically lopsided with the northern counties excluded, with varying inherited branding and identity negatives.
When you resource concentrate through regionalism or provincialism, which Welsh rugby did in 2003, albeit in a somewhat peculiar manner, because you don’t have the population numbers and you do have too much historic team diversity for a non-resource concentration approach, you either have to split the season between tiers – as New Zealand does – or be very smart with integrated fixture lists.
Fixture lists most efficiently cascade downwards and with each tier supporting the tiers above. Starting with Wales, then with the regions (Pro14 and Europe), then the semi-pro club game and then the grassroots club game. Few punters will actively engage with all tiers, but the key is avoiding needlessly excluding large numbers of consumers.
Now, of course, this has never happened in Welsh rugby. The theory is everybody does their own thing and, by some miracle, all will end-up nicely aligned. Either that, or alignment doesn’t matter. Opponents of resource concentration can never quite agree over which story they prefer.
We have long-known the Welsh Test fixtures for 2018-19. The WRU Championship and the club leagues have been known for weeks, and most recently the WRU Premiership. We now know the Pro 14 fixtures, but not the Europe fixtures. Not exactly cascading down in alignment, is it?
Now, obviously there are complications with competitors in Europe.
England and France are not resource concentration professional rugby models, although the latter has seen a gradual shift towards big city clubs at the expense of some of the traditional club powerhouses.
Ireland is, but their provincial teams pre-dated professionalism – the actual provinces long pre-dating organised rugby – and the only requirement was for Ireland to adopt them for professional commercialised rugby and which they sensibly did.
It was a clear differentiation from countries like New Zealand and Wales, where the resource concentration would have to be somewhat artificially constructed.
It hasn’t prevented Ireland from commercially developing their fixtures, perhaps most notably Ulster growing a large crowd through habitual non-club rugby conflict Friday evening matches at Ravenhill.
Wales remains inefficient – four radically different organisations/businesses sharing only the regional designation.
The Dragons invested significant time and effort last season in engaging with their regional feeder clubs, yet this season their home fixture list is incompatible with that investment to the extent that the region may struggle to find a suitable match to take to another regional home venue to suppress the longstanding Newport-centric complaints. The suspicion is that Premier Sports don’t want to waste prime Friday and Saturday evening TV slots on them.
The Cardiff Blues have taken a polar opposite approach, yet find themselves mostly excluded from the Saturday afternoon slot many of their fans so desire. The suspicion is that Premier Sports sufficiently value them for some of the prime slots following their success in last season’s second tier European competition.
The Ospreys, having proudly if somewhat surprisingly, even allowing for the practicalities of sharing the Liberty Stadium with Swansea City AFC, expressed a preference in recent seasons for Saturday afternoon home matches, find themselves featuring heavily in the evenings and especially Fridays.
Only the Scarlets have a home fixture list that broadly meets their decentralised commercial objectives, Saturday afternoon clashes with the Ospreys for the old guard and as they would expect a mixture of prime slots and servicing S4C befitting their current playing strength.
Post-BBC profile via terrestrial TV is limited, FreeSports not significantly featuring the Welsh regions and S4C inevitably limited to a Welsh language commentary at an awkward time slot between the afternoon and the evening. Fixture integration with the club game is non-existent.
Falling behind the commercial curve, and Welsh regional rugby has been languishing behind it from inception, is always a headache. You initially end up chasing the next commercial deal, survival mode in a strategic void, and then compromises have to be made in playing catch-up as significant revenue rises tend to come with more strings attached than desirable.
The Welsh regional game is slowly heading in the right direction, but a decade or more of sustained and significant evolutionary change lies ahead. Nobody should be under any illusions.