Welsh rugby is back – the four professional teams, the international stars, the TV cameras, if not the crowds. But something else has returned, too. The background noise of infighting, mistrust and suspicion is there, this time surrounding the free-spending, upwardly mobile Dragons. Steffan Thomas says it’s great to see the Dragons where they are now, but suggests there needs to be openness about how they got there.
Mahatma Ghandi once said, “truth never damages a cause that is just.”
Some might be wondering why a quote from an Indian anti-colonial nationalist is relevant in the context of Welsh rugby, but, like the British Empire, transparency hasn’t always been the game’s strong point.
Professional rugby is set to return for the first time since March this weekend as the Scarlets, Cardiff Blues, Ospreys and Dragons face each other in a fortnight of local derbies to finish the Guinness Pro 14 season.
But while most fans are excited at the prospect of live rugby returning to stadiums, as ever there is a political storm raging in the background.
There have been rumblings of discontent for quite some time surrounding the Dragons – who are owned by the Welsh Rugby Union – and matters are now coming to a head.
You would be hard pressed to argue against the WRU’s takeover of the Dragons in 2017, which saved the Gwent region from liquidation.
And even the fans of the other three had grown bored of the Newport outfit always being the weakest, with little stardust within their squad.
But critics rightly now suggest there is a massive conflict of interest for the governing body to control one region, which competes with three that are independent.
The Gwent region has more clubs in its catchment area than the other regions and to see them drop out of the professional end would have been a significant blow to the structure of the game in Wales.
While the Dragons’ budget remains the lowest of the four professional sides, the overall cost of running their business is the most controversial aspect.
When the Union took over in 2017, WRU chief executive Martyn Phillips unequivocally stated: “We’re not coming here to lose money.”
But is that really the case and should the other three professional sides have to suffer as a result?
I’ve been very fortunate to have achieved the majority of what I set out to achieve in the game. I hope I can now harness my experiences from across some of the worlds top leagues and help the younger players @dragonsrugby strive to achieve theirs 👊🏼 huge potential in the group pic.twitter.com/pQ1oVvVuRh
— Jamie Roberts (@Jamiehuwroberts) August 3, 2020
Most Welsh rugby supporters are fed up with the constant bickering that has gone on in the regional game since its inception, but on this issue the WRU could have created a more harmonious environment with a little more transparency.
There are numerous questions about the Dragons which need to be answered. Firstly, what is the overall cost of running them?
Last year, Dragons chairman David Buttress, who has done a fantastic job in improving the Dragons’ fortunes, claimed he could turn the club into a profitable business by redeveloping a pile of land behind Rodney Parade called, “the cabbage patch.”
The suggestion was they could build a hotel on the land which would have strengthened the Dragons’ financial position.
Scarlets chairman Nigel Short quickly went on record saying all the money made from the land had to go into the regional pot and shared between all four professional sides.
The dispute got to the heart of the matter. Is the governing body looking after the interests of four regions, or just one?
The other question is how much will Buttress pay to buy back the Dragons and how will the deal be structured so the WRU can recoup any losses?
The most concerning aspect is the fact the Cardiff Blues, Ospreys and Scarlets all produce transparent accounts which detail their full spend, yet the WRU chooses not to follow suit with the Dragons.
Is it because they don’t want the full cost of running their region being known?
In the same one-year period, the WRU claimed it cost £7.6m to run the Dragons, £13.4m to run the Cardiff Blues, £14.1m to run the Scarlets and £12.1m to run the Ospreys.
How, why, and on what basis did it cost £4.5m less to run the Dragons?
It’s not out of the realms of possibility the WRU are underwriting £5m to 6m running the Gwent outfit.
Their director of rugby, Dean Ryan, has made a splash this summer by signing three Wales internationals.
The marquee capture was former Wales and British & Irish Lions star Jamie Roberts, who joined from the Stormers. Jonah Holmes has arrived from Leicester Tigers and Nick Tompkins is on a season long loan from Saracens.
A strong performing Dragons would be fantastic for the game in Wales as a whole and rekindles some of the glamour promised two decades ago when the likes of Gary Teichmann, Percy Montgomery and Shane Howarth showed up in Newport.
But there have been rumblings behind the scenes that the Dragons broke an embargo agreed at the outset of lockdown, which prohibited any new signings.
Are we also to assume that every player at the Dragons is centrally contracted due to their employer being directly owned by the Union? The lack of clarity on that fact has led to more tension within the Professional Rugby Board (PRB).
Financially, the game in Wales has entered the most unstable period since the sport went professional with the WRU set to loan the four professional outfits £20m between them.
The suggestion is they share it equally among all four, but is that fair or equal given the Dragons have been almost totally reliant on the WRU since 2017?
Many would prefer to turn a blind eye to this situation, and shut down debate, but it needs to be scrutinised and discussed.
It needs transparency and if the cause is just then, rather like on the field this weekend, the Dragons should have nothing to fear.