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Piggy In The Middle . . . What To Do With Welsh Rugby’s Inbetweeners

Former Wales coach Nigel Davies has warned of meltdown among some of Welsh rugby’s oldest clubs as a result of the WRU plan this season to downgrade the Principality Premiership in favour of regional A/U23 teams. Having looked at the problems facing Welsh rugby’s semi-pro tier, and at modernising the regions, Geraint Powell examines the thorny question of an intermediate tier between them.

Nothing quite divides Welsh rugby like the subject of Regional ‘A’ teams, inevitably so given the lack of integration and alignment between the regions and the club game.

Former Welsh Rugby Union chief executive David Moffett set the tone during his electoral campaign return to Wales in 2014, arguing that the regions should be denied the additional powers that come with controlling an ‘A’ team until they demonstrated they could run their first teams along genuine regional lines to achieve a greater ‘buy in’ from Welsh rugby fans.

If the WRU were to sanction ‘A’ teams before this, he added, they would be demonstrating a complete lack of understanding about the realities of the regions and would be “guilty of putting the cart before the horse”.

Limited block semi-‘A’ teams – called Premiership Selects – were subsequently tried and abysmally failed in the British and Irish Cup, to the surprise of practically nobody.

At the same time as this competition’s demise, the regions will no longer compete against the English clubs in the Anglo-Welsh Cup; the essentially inexperienced player development Welsh teams being hammered by vastly stronger English club teams utilising the competition differently to prepare for their next domestic league match.

Now, we embark upon slightly more formal limited block ‘A’ teams.

They were initially described as “U23” teams, but now are increasingly being described as “development squads”.

Such is the sensitivity surrounding even the nomenclature!

It is one of those classic Welsh rugby self-inflicted wounds, for season long ‘A’ teams make complete sense in theory and the controversy is mostly due to the botched implementation of regional rugby in 2003 and what has happened since in unhappy practice.

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The consensus amongst the so-called “aligners”, the advocates of integrated provincial/regional rugby before 2003, was that another ‘stepping stone’ tier would probably gradually emerge between the semi-pro clubs – many of the famous historic clubs of Welsh rugby – and the regions.

The provincial/regional teams would gradually become ever more professional in terms of coaching, analysis, strength & conditioning and nutrition etc, whereas the semi-pro clubs would remain – well – semi-pro and restricted by finances and players holding down full-time employment or studies.

It would be impossible to place a time frame upon this process, for that would depend upon the trajectory of the cost base of the professional game and that would be driven by external hemisphere and global factors.

This delay would be a blessing, not a curse, for it would enable the historic big clubs to commercially expand from their initial 2003 downgrade and would allow regional buy-in from the club game and the rest of the country and make the subsequent creation of regional ‘A’ teams far less contentious.

Well, that was the theory!

Irrespective of regional ‘A’ teams, the semi-pro clubs would have limitations of their own in terms of indefinitely continuing their player development pathway role.

At its best in satisfying consumer demand, the WRU Premiership would undoubtedly commercially work best as a competition-diverse but high performance-diluted, 14-18 club double round-robin league.

Still fine at honing technical skills, especially in young front five forwards, but severely limited in terms of aerobically developing aspiring professional players.

There would also be the usual problems for a governing body in relation to any such independent club league.

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Those would include both compelling clubs to maintain overall expenditure within their income and in agreeing and regulating a remuneration ‘cap’ to avoid rampant and unsustainable player inflation.

For this is the remuneration ‘cap’ enforcement risk landscape of brown envelopes directly from sponsors and so-called benefactors and also of other non-rugby employment being made dependent upon playing for “their club”.

Just about impossible to detect and enforce in the event of breach, and disproportionately expensive to even try to enforce. Reliant upon “whistle blowers” and/or unpalatable sting operations against suspected member club guarantor owners of the WRU.

There is always the residual risk of commercial implosion in the face of unwanted price competition fuelled by some club benefactors trying to buy the league or sudden benefactor exits from clubs.

In contrast, the WRU would be better placed to better regulate and control provincial or regional franchises to ensure both sustainability and compliance with governing body requirements at full and ‘A’ team level.

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So what is the solution?

There is no easy solution.

Some passionately advocate ‘A’ teams, including some from within the semi-pro club game who have grown increasingly disillusioned by the unregulated and disruptive operation of the Welsh regional player development pathway in practice.

Many others vehemently oppose such ‘A’ teams, mostly for the reasons outlined in 2014 by Moffett.

The majority probably remain somewhere in between, receptive to the thinking and logic behind full season regional ‘A’ teams, but expecting the problems built in to the regional game in 2003 to first be remedied and the commercial development of the WRU Premiership to be progressed before full-season long  ‘A’ teams are sanctioned.

Over to the WRU and the regions…

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