The Dragons are on the road. Next month they will take on Edinburgh in the Guinness Pro 14 at Ebbw Vale’s Eugene Cross Park, rather than at Rodney Parade. Geraint Powell says it will lose money – but gain fans and regional momentum.
When the Dragons announced on 5 January that they would be taking their home Pro14 match against Edinburgh to Ebbw Vale RFC’s Eugene Cross Park, there was always going to be a predictable, emotional and ideological response from some quarters.
There is no identity ambiguity about playing a home match at Ebbw Vale RFC. This is regional rugby for the many, not “super” club rugby for the few. This is a Gwent regional team, and the city of Newport is as much Gwent as the rest of the region.
Are all four Welsh professional regions the same? Of course not, for they all fundamentally differ from each other and from the belated RGC development region. They have very little in common with each other as businesses, beyond all being periodical signatories to participation agreements with the Welsh Rugby Union that grant them the required status as regions for professional rugby.
Is there any point in the Scarlets and the Ospreys regions playing competitive Pro14 matches elsewhere than at the municipally aided modern stadiums of Parc y Scarlets and Liberty? I would say “probably not”, given the lesser alienation issues in those regions. Although, the Ospreys play occasional non-Pro14 matches at their Brewery Field in Bridgend.
Do the Cardiff Blues need to play such matches? Yes, and desperately so, but is there any point until they have widened their identity and strengthened their regional brand? They are currently travelling in the opposite identity direction, desperately in search of a new lease.
Will the Dragons, irrespective of the long game financial and brand benefits, initially lose money on this type of regional hinterland fixture? Yes, undoubtedly so.
Would it have been better if the Dragons had played these missionary matches in the north of their region before the Bisley corporate stand was completed in 2011, so they were now just defensively reminding their region of their representation on a very occasional basis? Yes, it goes without saying.
Will it make any financial sense, having not done this work 2003-11, to compound that blunder and procrastinate further and again delay playing such matches until after Rodney Parade has been significantly redeveloped so that the financial hit will be even bigger? No, of course not.
It is instructive to analyse such secondary home venue matches in other non-club meritocracy provincial or regional rugby models.
The need for such matches is much less in provincial rugby models, and where there is usually a separate provincial identity pre-dating organised sport. Ireland mostly confines itself to Munster playing occasionally at Cork, to avoid being overly Limerick-centric. Geography and population spread makes secondary venue matches a commercial non-starter in Australia.
With regional rugby models it is more complicated.
Regionalism is really a sham in South Africa. The rugby consumer is overwhelming concentrated in the six big cities and provincial rugby homes of Johannesburg, Durban, Cape Town, Pretoria, Bloemfontein and Port Elizabeth.
In New Zealand it is far more interesting, with regional franchise matches at secondary venues such as Invercargill, Napier, Palmerston North, New Plymouth and even Albany well established.
Whilst identity and alienation is an issue, as exemplified by the well-publicised defection of the Taranaki province from the Hurricanes to the Chiefs in 2013, the balance between identity and geography is different to Wales and there is a greater emphasis upon geography in New Zealand. The identity issue is more one of fostering greater inclusion rather than of countering alienation.
If there is a long-term financial need to build the Dragons brand in northern Gwent, and there is, the question then essentially becomes one of practicalities. What is the requisite logistical exercise that maximises the long-term returns whilst minimising the short-term costs?
Whilst the Friday evening fixture on 23 February is somewhat of a trial and error experiment, with reference only to last season’s forced relocation to Caerphilly RFC’s Virginia Park due to a fixture clash with Newport County FC at Rodney Parade, what are the issues going forwards in playing an annual match at Eugene Cross Park as the region’s likely secondary northern home?
Public transport links in Gwent are notoriously poor. That will come as a surprise to no Gwenter.
Whilst it would be counterproductive to play such a match in the afternoon in commercial competition with the region’s feeder clubs, public transport links are even worse in the evening.
Bus transport between Ebbw Vale and Cwmbran/Newport has pretty much closed down by 9.30pm on a Friday or Saturday evening.
The passenger rail service up to Ebbw Vale, closed in 1962, might have been re-opened in 2008, but to date there is just an hourly service to Cardiff.
The key to successfully operating missionary matches at a venue such as Eugene Cross Park, in terms of encouraging attendance from the southern part of the region, will be in developing a Dragons coach network for such matches.
Given the limitations with public transport, provision will be needed for sufficient private parking.
Ebbw Vale was never traditionally a difficult place to park in, when Ebbw Vale RFC were part of the top flight of Welsh domestic rugby until 2003 and accommodated larger crowds. A similar large capacity local natural amphitheatre, Abertillery Park, would provide a greater car parking challenge.
However, local residents are nowadays more sensitive to such issues and formal provision will need to be made for such a crowd within a reasonable distance of the ground.
Advocates of schools rugby mostly share the same main reason, as the only place where all children are legally obliged to be. A captive audience, compared to attracting children to an age-grade set-up at a local rugby club.
In the weeks leading-up to a match at Eugene Cross Park in future seasons, the Dragons will probably be thinking of well-timed visits in the preceding weeks to the local secondary schools in Ebbw Vale, Abertillery, Tredegar and Brynmawr in particular and their feeder primary schools.
Dragons head coach Bernard Jackman, from the outset of his tenure last summer, has made a point of engaging with and attending the represented clubs of the region.
It has been a logical long-term approach from the new head coach, given the limitations to what he can achieve this season with the inherited squad.
For future matches in Ebbw Vale, this same lead in period might be used for disproportionate visits to a number of Blaenau Gwent and upper Torfaen/Islwyn rugby clubs. The same considerations will apply at any other secondary venue used within the region.
Host Club / Local Authority
Finally, when such missionary matches are played in the regional hinterland, as much support as possible in creating an event from the host club and the local authority is desirable.
In the case of this venue, that means Ebbw Vale RFC and Blaenau Gwent council.
There may be a slow start on 23 February, as the long-term logistical issues are identified by all stakeholders, but this type of fixture is likely to become at least an annual and growing event over the next few seasons as the Dragons rectify their past mistakes and grow their brand across Gwent.
By the time redevelopment work has been completed in Newport, the commercial aim must be to have all but eradicated the alienation issues that have bedevilled and financially crippled Gwent regional rugby since 2003.
The Dragons will get bigger crowds as they become more successful, but not from any areas that are left still feeling alienated and without a connection with their region.