Amateur Rugby Needs To Be Joined Properly To The Pro Game – Not Cut From It

In the second of two articles on WRU governance modernisation, Geraint Powell argues that severing professional rugby from the amateur game would only exacerbate current problems and suggests Welsh rugby requires strong devolved structures.

My articles on Welsh rugby governance always trigger a lively response and my one on 8 March (www.dai-sport.com/22056-2/) was no exception.

It is fair to say that my observation that governance severing the professional game from the amateur game has become the “holy grail of the intellectually challenged” was not uniformly well received.

But if New Zealand, a similar small population rugby pyramid dependent upon “the financial engine” of a Test team and only able to just about afford a handful of professional regional franchises, correctly identified over a matter of weeks in 1995 that doing this would solve nothing and create a whole host of new problems, what are the flaws with this “solution” and what is driving this intellectual nonsense as a potentially credible solution to Welsh rugby’s problems 23 years later?

  • Type of split

The initial problem with this “solution” stems from that great curse of modern Welsh rugby; the use of imprecise language.

There are radically different types of split, not a single one that all proponents are agreed upon.

Some proponents have in mind English rugby league, where the amateur game broke away from the professional game – which has acted as the governing body of rugby league since the 1895 schism with English rugby union – in 1973. It was an acrimonious split, to put it mildly, but the professional clubs had founded and controlled rugby league including Test rugby.

Elliot Kear scores for Wales against Italy in the 2013 Rugby League World Cup. Pic: Getty Images.

The British Amateur Rugby League (BARLA) submits to the Rugby Football League (RFL) as the overarching governing body level through a RFL sub-board.  It has been a troubled relationship, and BARLA was born out of the professional game’s perceived neglect of the wider amateur game.

This is all the antithesis of Welsh rugby and a union of clubs structure, where there was no professionalism until 1995 and where the Test team and the WRU stadium has never been operated and owned by elite professional clubs.

Even if the WRU’s member clubs wanted to sell their assets to the regional game, and establish a separate amateur game administration (e.g. the Welsh Amateur Rugby Union), and it is difficult to see the commercial logic in relinquishing their stadium asset and control of the Test ticket supply, there is no way that the financially troubled regional game could fund such a takeover.

Other proponents have in mind separate professional game and amateur game boards at the WRU, but what this would really mean is only a limited governance split at sub-board level only.

To other proponents, especially associated with the regional game, this would not constitute real governance severance at all as the WRU member clubs would still retain ultimate power for the WRU board would still have to allocate resources between the two sub-boards.

Other proponents of “a split” are not even talking about governance at all, but reacting against the current operation of the player development pathway and the specifically unsatisfactory use of academy and regional fringe players in the WRU Premiership and the feeling that player development for the regions has become overly prioritised.

A particular sore point, without embedding an academy player at a WRU Premiership club for a season, is being pressurised into using a player to the detriment of the match day squad selection.

The late withdrawal of any regional player, e.g. because he is needed by the region at the last minute, has a knock-on effect. Not only is the WRU Premiership club disrupted, but it often has a trickle down impact as a dual registered player is recalled to the WRU Premiership from the lower leagues at even shorter notice to that club.

The four regions are facing changing times. Pic: WRU.

There are much easier solutions to these pathway problems, from regional ‘A’ or U23 teams to WRU Premiership long-term player embedding, than severing the pyramid and de facto building barriers to entry between the top of a further downgraded club game and the bottom of the regional game.

And, of course, if the regions played most of their matches on a Friday evening, there would not even be disruptive player withdrawals from Saturday afternoon club matches.

  • Consensus

If we could clear that minefield, the severance fun/conflict (delete as per your personal preference) would really begin.

As it is the most practical, or rather the least impractical, let us assume that we adopt delegated powers and split professional and amateur game sub-boards. Just for the sake of argument, as I know some proponents would not consider this a governance split at all.

I am pretty confident, if I placed ten proponents in the same room, I would struggle to get any two of them to agree on the actual minutae of such a severance.

As a random example, one of many I could choose, let us look at the emotive subject of the demarcation line between the performance game and the grassroots game.

Some proponents would argue that everything below regional ‘A’ or U23 teams is for the amateur board. Some would retain a semi-professional club game, whilst others would abolish it.

Other proponents would argue that the demarcation line should be anything below the WRU Premiership. Other proponents argue below the WRU Championship, perhaps others below ‘A’ licence given the current Pontypool RFC oddity in the WRU Championship.

The semi-pro game can often get caught in the middle.

In terms of remuneration, some proponents argue that the WRU Premiership, and certainly the WRU Championship, should be strictly amateur.

Some would define amateur to mean no WRU pathway money, allowing benefactors and/or sponsors to fund wages. Others would define amateur to mean amateur.

However you define amateurism, some retreat from it in the face of the practicalities of enforcement (always a governing body practical headache).

Artificial governance splits don’t solve any of these issues, and would just create more problems and tensions.

The underlying mischief is not that the club game is being poorly governed. It is more that nobody is really governing the club game at all.  There is a structural void.

The WRU board is obviously and inevitably fully occupied with the Test and non-Test tiers of the professional game, where nearly all the pyramidal financial and commercial risk resides, and there are currently no devolved/decentralised structures worthy of the name. Even a WRU sub-board for the club game will never have the time to do this unaided from below.

The WRU has historically been an overly centralised bureaucracy, perhaps inevitably so in a geographically small country based on club rugby without constituent provincial unions.

This is what needs to change, but through aligned devolution/decentralisation rather than through non-aligned severance. We don’t need even more stakeholders disjointedly going about their own business without reference to their impact upon others. We have had enough of that since 2003.

  • Risk

As we are living in the era of prudent risk management across all walks of life, it is risible that those arguing for severance fail to make clear that nearly under all forms of severance the club game, rather than the regional game, would retain the risk of the WRU getting their sums wrong.

In a small rugby country like Wales, financially dependent upon the Test team, it is not easy to cut costs there and any such cost cutting in that sphere is usually a false economy in any event.

Happier days: Cardiff Blues chairman Peter Thomas celebrates with Ma’ama Molitika following their team’s victory in the 2009 EDF Energy Cup. Pic: Getty Images.

It is equally difficult to cut costs in the regional game, compounded by long-term contractual funding commitments with nominally independent external service suppliers.

So, if the pyramidal books fail to balance, and income and costs spiral out of alignment, the cost savings to re-balance the accounts will mostly have to come through reduced funding of the club game (both grants and operational costs).

So, if the club game is ultimately carrying the financial risk of the full pyramid, whether integrated or severed, why will the club game vote to surrender power and influence whilst still carrying the risk?

  • Deflection

If Welsh rugby actually requires a high quality commercial/rugby smaller strategic WRU main board with underpinning devolved structures to carry the burden of administering and selling the club game, why do proponents keep flogging this dead horse?

The answers are very simple; desperation within the club game and deflection from the real problems in the regional game.

I find that those from within the club game, admittedly a very small minority, that alight in desperation upon a governance split do so for the very best of motives.

It is a reaction to the club game inevitably becoming neglected due to overly centralised structures and the WRU board being focussed elsewhere.

This is particularly so at the semi-professional level, where clubs and fans can see forces at work that are trying to drive Welsh rugby towards the binary options of spectator regional rugby or participant local club rugby and leaving no room for anything in between.

The motives of many of the proponents associated with the regional game sadly are usually far less altruistic.

The WRU board undoubtedly failed to re-order the Welsh game in 1995, and was prevented from doing so in 2003. But some regional fans do not want to admit that those that blocked the proper re-ordering of the professional game in 2003 have ultimately financially crashed the regional game.

The Celtic Warriors and the Newport Gwent Dragons regions are no more, although the latter is rebuilding from scratch under another identity and under a radically different business model.

The Scarlets stormed to the Guinness Pro12 title last season. Pic: Getty Images.

The Cardiff Blues are on the precipice, a mixture of pressure through the media and praying that the Cardiff Athletic Club will now gamble accumulated assets in speculating upon regional rugby.

The Ospreys and the Scarlets have bought themselves time, better run on the rugby side and aided through new stadia and their dominance of WRU/regional contracts, but their financial futures remain precarious.

All the regions require greater funding from the WRU member clubs, and with greater WRU funding will come greater WRU control. This is the commercial reality, as sure as night follows day.

The real basis for arguing for severance is the deflection, the implicit blaming of the WRU board for many mistakes clearly made by others. There have been self-inflicted wounds as the 2003 resource concentration went awry, from incorrect identities to flawed tenancy agreements.

You see it on social media every day, the obsessions of some regional fans with WRU governance and the silence of most club fans that can recognise the real problems. It is all part of the wider “blame game” transference culture, rather than looking in the mirror. The WRU board, club/district “blazers”, the Irish, the Pro14 league etc are all scapegoated instead!

The WRU has an excellent Chief Executive in Martyn Phillips, more than capable under the right structures of easily running the Test and regional games and light touch overseeing the club – both semi-professional and amateur – game.

What the WRU does not have are the right devolved/decentralised structures to efficiently do this as an organisation.

Aligned devolution is required, not non-aligned severance.

 

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