Judgement Day . . . Time To Map Out The Future

Judgement Day weekend has arrived, a near end-of-season stock take and accounting both on and off the pitch. Geraint Powell casts his eye over the form of the four teams and the issue of geography in an expanding league.

The geographical horizon of Welsh professional regional rugby suddenly contracts this weekend.

The regular fans of the four southern Rugby Service Agreement regional franchises, together with occasional fans, neutrals from across the club game, and occasion eventers, will converge on the Principality Stadium in Cardiff for Judgement Day VI’s domestic double-header and the conclusion of the Guinness Pro14 regular season.

The last Saturday in April, and all Welsh rugby roads lead to Westgate Street. It could still be the 1970s or the 1980s, and the WRU Schweppes Cup final.

Except the Cup final this weekend is now on a Sunday, and it is three Cups nowadays; National, Plate and Bowl. Only the East Stand’s lower tier will be required. We have more cups, more finals, but far less club fans. This is simply one of the modern equations in Welsh rugby nowadays.

As for Saturday’s professional regional rugby, there will be a big crowd.  There will be far too few regular fans and far too much reliance upon occasional fans, neutrals and eventers for any healthy regional or provincial model, but we are where we are.

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A salutary reminder of what happens when you botch any resource concentration. A national sport gradually being replaced, with a minority sport that holds occasional national parties in Cardiff.

The Dragons will first-up host the Scarlets, and the end of this season cannot come quickly enough for the injury-riddled transitioning Dragons, whilst the Scarlets will remain Welsh professional regional rugby’s standard-bearers in search of a home play-off berth.

Then, the in-form Cardiff Blues, looking forward to a final against Gloucester in Bilbao in the European second tier Challenge Cup, will host another team in transition in the Ospreys.

It’s a remarkable turnaround from a perceived lame-duck head coach at the Blues in Danny Wilson, as the region finally prioritises – of financial necessity – the development of young regional players and perhaps best exemplified by Pontypridd’s Jarrod Evans.

Pontypridd Schools will contest the Dewar Shield final against Llanelli Schools on Tuesday evening, two other Blues’ schools districts in Cardiff and the Rhondda having reached the semi-final stage. The pathway is at least healthy, if not the representation.

The geographical horizon of the non-Test tier of Welsh professional rugby has undoubtedly expanded since 1995.

First the Scots (1999), then the Irish (2001), then the Italians (2010) and the latest being two South African franchises joining the league this season from Super Rugby.

We have seen this expanding geographical horizon recently, with the Blues touring South Africa.

A journey to the escarpment and Bloemfontein that turned into a 55 hour nightmare and injury time heartbreak against the Cheetahs, followed by a sea level demolition of the Southern Kings in the Eastern Cape’s Port Elizabeth.

Travelling to the South African Highveld requires an early or a late arrival, either time for the body to fully acclimatise or a match that is completed before the altitude takes its toll. If you choose the latter option when you are flying long-haul, there is little leeway for travel disruption.

The Blues then returned to dominate Pau of South West France at the breakdown last weekend in their European semi-final, in a glaring example of the difference between the Pro14 and the Top 14.

Whilst the Blues were in South Africa, the Dragons had their own mini-tour to play their league matches against Benetton in Treviso and against Zebre down at L’Aquila rugby club in southern Italy.

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Last gasp defeats snatched from the clutches of victory on both occasions, and not without refereeing controversy, but otherwise positives there from a young touring party deputising for their injured seniors and awaiting significant squad reinforcement over the summer.

Whilst these tours were taking place, the Ospreys successfully welcomed Connacht before going down to Ulster in an entertaining low scoring match in Belfast.

In geographical terms, nowadays that is perhaps only the modern day league equivalent of the historic Swansea or Neath clubs once playing Cardiff or Pontypridd.

We certainly witnessed the end of an era at the Liberty Stadium as Dan Biggar and Ashley Beck made their final appearances before heading for Northampton and Worcester respectively. Rhys Webb would have done likewise, before joining Toulon, but for injury.

The Ospreys were themselves in Italy last weekend, to play their weather postponed match against Zebre in Parma. A very young side heavily defeated. Yes, another region in transition.

The Scarlets have had to content themselves with Scottish fixtures whilst this has all been happening, the first team impressively defeating Glasgow at home and the second team less impressively being hammered at Edinburgh.

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There is a lack of depth at even our strongest region, the wrong model not generating enough finance across our professional regional tier.

The Scarlets first team may have been rested/rotated, but it was still unable to cope in Dublin last weekend with a Leinster team on their best European Champions Cup competition form and now only Racing 92 are left between them and the big silverware they really covet in Bilbao.  Winning the Pro12 would then just be the icing on their cake.

So, if the geographical horizon has expanded, why has geography become such an internally sensitive and problematic issue for Welsh rugby?

It is 15 years after the creation of professional regional rugby, but you will still find no regional map on either the Welsh Rugby Union or Pro Rugby Wales websites.

Indeed, Pro Rugby Wales effectively returned ownership and control of the “regions” word to the WRU four years ago in an extraordinary example of misjudging the national rugby mood.

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The Ospreys once commissioned an Ordnance Survey map of their region – Ospreylia – spreading for 37 miles from east to west and for 24 miles from its northern-most point to the coastline on the south and providing a total boundary of 151 miles. But even they have been reluctant to commercially use maps, even when former chief executive Andrew Hore was later in charge and being accused by some of weaponising their regional identity against other less inclusive regions – “Ospreylia, the One True Region”.

Only the Dragons finally seem truly commercially comfortable in their geographical identity, and they are far behind the other regions as they rebuild their entire organisation, squad and stadium facility from scratch after more than a decade of mostly mounting financial constraint.

The Dragons’ regional map.

What is Welsh professional regional rugby?

We know what regional rugby is elsewhere, for we have seen it in New Zealand and with less structural clarity in South Africa. It is where the inevitable inclusive alignment resource concentration occurs when the provincial tier was/is too diverse for professional rugby.

Just as our historic tribal club tier was too diverse, and geographically compacted, to meet the requirements of modern professional rugby.

But what is professional regional rugby in the Welsh context, if it is to mean anything other than a fudged term that is preferable to opponents of alignment and integration than the less ambiguous “professional provincial rugby”?

A few still argue it should just be a postcode boundary for a player pathway to favoured historic clubs masquerading as regions, the rugby equivalent of arguing that marriage should just be on tap sex with no emotional or financial commitments whatsoever. All benefit to the recipient, no burden of representation.

And this is where the geographical elephant in the room becomes so problematic. And we have so many Welsh rugby elephants, in such a small Welsh room.

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And not just problematic for the widely discussed issues; the disenfranchisement of North Wales from the professional regional game, the widespread alienation across the valley areas of South East Wales, and the duplication in and around Swansea and where we have 50% of our professional rugby regions in a country of 3.1 million servicing around 900,000 people from about 12 miles apart.

There are so many other geographical questions we should have been asking ourselves since 2003, where there has just been continued silence.

If our regional game will be far more geographically compressed than in the southern hemisphere, to the extent that Welsh consumers will have multiple other regions within easy reach, what do we additionally need from our model to prevent fans who choose “another region” for whatever reason, whether family or birth/upbringing or consumer choice, from not feeling disconnected?

If we have three regions in South Wales, let alone all four, should we not base all those squads at the Vale with centralised state of the art facilities and experts available to all, rather than inefficiently waste money duplicating lower standard facilities across multiple training venues?

Until we confront these pressing geographical issues, instead of just continuing to bury our heads in the sand, the dream of an efficient, aligned and integrated professional regional rugby model will remain just that – a dream.

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