By David Williams
Alun Wyn Jones has laid the blame for the Wales players’ strike threat firmly at the door of the Welsh Rugby Union.
The world’s most capped rugby player and former Wales captain says the possibility of player strike action is “hard to deny” as Welsh rugby finds itself gripped by a professional contracts freeze.
“Ultimately, if you treat people badly for long enough, you get to where we find ourselves,” said the 37-year-old Ospreys forward.
But Jones, Wales’ record cap holder with 156 appearances, has also stressed that it would be “the very last option”.
Wales play fierce Guinness Six Nations rivals England in Cardiff on Saturday week against a back-drop of recruitment being on hold and next season’s playing budgets not yet being finalised for the four professional regions of Cardiff, Ospreys, Dragons and Scarlets.
A new financial agreement between the regions and the Welsh Rugby Union has still to be confirmed in writing, sparking concern that a sizeable number of players whose contracts expire at the end of this season will head away from Wales, with a huge sense of uncertainty currently engulfing them and their families.
While Wales head coach Warren Gatland said he would not support his players if they decided to strike, he added: “I completely support the stance that they are taking in terms of wanting to get some resolution of the issues that they have.
“I am supportive of the players and the things that they are trying to do, and my role is just to prepare the team for next week.”
But Gatland clearly angered by the position of the WRU.
WRU statement: "WRU and clubs have been paying salaries their business can't afford."
Gatland: "It's a little disingenuous to say that the players are paid too much. It's not their fault that contracts were negotiated." pic.twitter.com/1cRoALqXZU
— Graham Thomas (@Graham_Thomas) February 16, 2023
The New Zealander’s comments came after the Welsh Rugby Players’ Association (WRPA) said “players have had enough” amid the ongoing contract situation.
The Wales players, meanwhile, have made a squad decision to pause filming with Netflix, who are making a documentary on this season’s Six Nations.
Jones asked for Netflix to not film him arriving for a press conference alongside Gatland on Thursday, with their camera crew then leaving the room before it started.
And asked about reports that the squad left a sponsors’ dinner early on Wednesday night, Jones said: “We went for the dinner and were present to show face and thank all the sponsors. We went there, thanked the sponsors.”
Negotiations on the future of the professional game in Wales are handled by the Professional Rugby Board (PRB), which comprises representatives from each of the regions, acting WRU chief executive Nigel Walker, WRU finance director Tim Moss and two independent members, including chair Malcolm Wall.
Walker met with senior members of the Wales squad on Wednesday “to further clarify the current position”.
Asked if strike action was a possibility, former Wales captain Jones said: “I suppose it is. It is hard to deny, but it is the very last option.
“There are people who are really impassioned. Ultimately, if you treat people badly for long enough, you get to where we find ourselves.
“Everyone wants to play the (England) game. Selected or not, I want to get back to the job.
“It’s about protecting the game to ensure it goes well for generations to come. We have to sort this out now. We can’t go back into this cycle of uncertainty.
“We are well aware there are rebalances that need to be made financially, but again, it comes down to players being boxed in with their options in terms of the 60-cap rule (international selection policy for players plying their trade outside of Wales) and the contractual obligations.
“It is ultimately in motion now, because dialogue has been had and as players we’ve voiced our concerns.
“You don’t want to see guys in their early 20s not knowing where their career is going to go. They are curtailed at the minute with some of the conditions and the unilateral decisions made without negotiation.
“It is disappointing that we are 20 years into regional rugby and it’s the same things that have come around again.
“We are fortunate that we are all involved in a sport and a job we love. To fathom the fact we might not do that because of the severity of the situation is very real, but it’s the last thing we want to do. “I can tell you every player wants to play rugby, but we can’t be under the guillotine and be used in the
emotive side of things when ultimately this is a career and a job.”
The WRPA said in a statement. “What is deeply concerning is that until the long-form agreement is
signed and active, no players’ futures are guaranteed.
“This is having a profound effect on players – especially those out of contract – and is placing
unacceptable strain on mental health and overall wellbeing.
“Strike action is something that we wish to see avoided as a players’ union and our members want to be
taking the field as they always have.
“But clearly, the anxiety caused by the situation is now affecting the lives and profession of players.
“Players have had enough. This is not a game of ‘Championship Manager’.”