Wales are on tour in the Americas, both of them. As the North America leg looms with Saturday’s game against South Africa, Geraint Powell argues that money talks in modern rugby, but the international game always has the loudest and most urgent voice.
It is hard to think of a Test match that more encapsulates the commercial reality of modern professional Test rugby that Saturday’s out-of-window Wales match against South Africa.
For a start, this game against the Springboks is at the former home of the Washington Redskins NFL franchise, en route to Wales’ two Test Argentina tour.
It is also in a summer between the British and Irish Lions tour of New Zealand and the Japanese World Cup preparation, so the Welsh Lions contingent that completed the 2017 tour from start to finish are either injured or rested.
A Welsh team without Sam Warburton, Alun Wyn Jones, Taulupe Falatau, Ken Owens, Dan Biggar, Leigh Halfpenny, Jonathan Davies, Justin Tipuric, Liam Williams and the imminently ineligible Rhys Webb looks very different. Only Ross Moriarty and George North of the original Welsh Lions contingent, whose New Zealand tour was both cut short by injury, will be touring this summer.
Then, add in the fact that players originally selected for the June tour party – Luke Charteris, Tomas Francis and Josh Adams – but subsequently withdrawn after the English clubs would not release them – are not in Washington.
Also, include the recent injuries such as to Josh Navidi, Aaron Shingler and – in training – Ashton Hewitt, and it starts to look more like an ‘A’ or development side.
Not that anybody would ever market any exhibition Test rugby match in the USA in those terms.
But there is no time for sentimentality in modern Test rugby, wistful yearning over devaluing the jersey and Test rugby with this Washington DC layover.
Wales will earn an appearance fee in Washington DC, whilst they will earn nothing in Argentina under rugby’s November/June reciprocal touring arrangements. There are cobwebs to be swept off, Wales being notoriously slow starters in Test rugby gatherings.
The next World Cup in Japan is coming over the horizon, squad depth has to be built and Wales needed no greater reminder of this strength in depth requirement than through their injury problems at the last World Cup. This tour is about players seizing the opportunity presented.
The Pumas are now again a hard tour in June, for this window is no longer a rest period for a wave of overseas-based stars between the English and French leagues concluding and the Rugby Championship beginning.
The Jaguares have been on fire in Super Rugby since early April. The Blues and the Chiefs were defeated in New Zealand, the Rebels and the Brumbies defeated in Australia. They stuck 50 points on the Bulls.
So, maybe a warm-up match before the Tests in San Juan and Sante Fe will do the Welsh tour party no harm.
If anything, the Springboks will field in Washington an even more depleted side. But you can only beat what is fielded against you, and a weak opposition is no excuse for losing to it.
The South African Super Rugby franchises are misfiring, the erratic Lions under pressure from the Jaguares to decide who wins the South African conference. There is some disquiet from Lions fans, even allowing for a number of injuries, that only five of their players have been selected.
Ruan Combrinck, Rohan Janse van Rensburg, Andreas Coetzee and Ross Cronje are amongst their overlooked players. New head coach Rassie Erasmus has preferred Sharks franchise players, who have caused the NZ regional franchises some difficulties with their direct confrontational approach.
The Springboks commence a three Test series against England a week later, Test matches in Johannesburg and Bloemfontein before heading down to sea level in Cape Town.
England have never won a Test series in South Africa and the Erasmus priority this June will no doubt be keeping it that way.
The Springboks, as they enter a new era under Erasmus, have injury problems.
Former skippers Eben Etzebeth and Warren Whiteley are unavailable, plus hooker Malcolm Marx, lock Lood de Jager, centre Jan Serfontein, outside half Pat Lambie and the Gloucester-bound Jaco Kriel, amongst others.
Bismarck Du Plessis returns to cover for Marx, but he and Frans Steyn will be on Top 14 final duty for Montpellier against Castres this weekend.
Out of an extended 43 man Springboks squad, Erasmus is taking 26 to Washington. Lock Pieter-Steph du Toit will temporarily captain the Springboks in Washington.
The other three selected exiles – Faf de Klerk of Sale, Willie Le Roux of Wasps and Duane Vermuelen of Toulon – and key players such as new skipper Siya Kolisi, outside-half Handre Pollard, locks RG Snyman and Franco Mostert, props Tendai “Beast” Mtawarira and Trevor Nyakane, centre Damian de Allende and wing Aphiwe Dyantyi are amongst those remaining in South Africa this weekend and undoubtedly preparing to play England instead.
The harsh reality of modern professional rugby as a business is still not appreciated by many in Wales, with former Wales captain Gwyn Jones referring to the fixture as “an absolute shambles”.
It is perhaps unsurprising, given the tortuous and painful history of Welsh non-Test rugby since 1995.
The fans – present and lapsed – of those former leading clubs alienated from the regional game are showing little interest, sympathy or empathy for the regional finances and many even resent the current WRU expenditure.
Fans of the regions generally having little understanding of the finances, especially those who think they do – part infantilised by funding directors who have generously eliminated moral hazard and part blaming the WRU for not cross-subsidising to the same extent as is possible under different and superior rugby models.
The result; a group think split personality disorder.
Those fans who are the most vocally opposed to regional hinterland matches on the basis of – at least in the short term – financial losses, are invariably the most opposed to more WRU stadium regional event matches that would generate more income on a far grander scale.
The Test tier of professional rugby makes money. The non-Test tier of professional rugby loses money.
That’s rugby’s modern business equation. Even that “old fart” Dudley Wood of the English RFU grasped the likelihood of this happening.
It does not matter, in a small country, as long as you integrate the tiers and set-up a business model that allows the governing body to transfer income from its Test sub-business to its few in number non-Test sub-businesses without obstacles.
A different model is required in larger countries, where there are more broadcaster and benefactor wealth opportunities, but too many expensive mouths to help feed just from Test revenues.
This is why Wales play matches outside of the Test window, and why they will be seeking a third consecutive win over the Springboks on Saturday in the unusual setting of the USA capital.