Ross Moriarty is on the move – back to Wales for a team owned by the WRU, but not on a WRU deal. Confused? Seimon Williams outlines why a team seemingly moving from rags to riches need to say who’s paying for their new gear.
The confirmation of Gloucester, Wales and Lions back-rower Ross Moriarty’s move to the Dragons from the start of next season raises a number of important issues.
The first is that, for the Dragons, this is an enormous boost and supporters will hope that this is a signal of their long-term intent to compete. While they were one of the strongest teams in the first couple of years of the post-2003 landscape, for over a decade now they have been uncompetitive. Following Friday’s 54-10 thumping at Leinster – the sixth time they have shipped more than 35 points in nine Pro14 games this season – the signing of such a high-profile player can only be a boost to the club.
Secondly, for the game in Wales, for the national team and for PRW’s ambitions of retaining the best Welsh talent at Welsh clubs, this signing is significant. Moriarty has been struggling with a back injury since the Lions tour over the summer, and playing in Wales means he will be subject to the Rugby Services Agreement (RSA) between the WRU and PRW which limits him to 16 regular club games per season. That will doubtless have been a factor. However, it seems that the new Senior Players Selection Policy – which scraps the “wildcard” approach for a clearer rule that provides exemptions for players considering leaving Wales only if they already have 60 caps – has its first success. Moriarty has never played professional rugby in Wales, and has confirmed that
“Playing international rugby is the pinnacle of every player’s career and with the new rules, it left me with no choice but to move to Wales to further my international ambitions.”
That is a serious boost to the game in Wales.
Of equal, if not greater significance, however, is the third factor, namely the way this transfer has been conducted.
When the WRU took over the Dragons earlier this year, WRU Chairman Martyn Phillips noted that the club needed to be run sustainably. He went as far as to say that
“…splashing the cash on marquee players is not going to be what we do”.
But that is precisely what the Dragons have done in signing Moriarty. He has long been likely to return to Wales, and the WRU offered him a NDC. According to Wales Head Coach Warren Gatland, Moriarty turned down the NDC as “someone else has come in with more money from their own personal point of view”. That “someone” is now confirmed as Dragons Chairman David Buttress.
So it looks as though the WRU has been outbid by one of its constituent professional clubs. This isn’t unprecedented, of course. Scott Williams is on a club-only contract at the Scarlets after they and the Ospreys got involved in an auction for his services which pushed his value beyond that which the WRU could wear. What is different this time is that, even though the WRU and the Dragons seem to be legally separate entities, the WRU own Rodney Parade and Dragons employees – including their players – are de facto WRU employees.
There are question marks around the value to the Dragons of the move. They are currently operating on a playing budget approximately 30% smaller than that of the other three professional clubs. While there are rumours that the budget will be increased for next season, the signs are that it will still be significantly shy of the other three at under £4m. The RSA will limit his playing time in Newport and, with the Rugby World Cup in Japan filling the first half of the second year of his two-year contract, the Dragons may not see much of him. Why pay a rumoured £400,000 per annum for a club-only contract when they could – under an NDC – have had precisely the same access to his time for £160,000?
For Moriarty’s part, it seems an odd move. He is now a high-profile player, a Test regular and Lion. A rugby player’s career is a fragile thing and can be ended by a single injury. His style of play is attritional – he is a ball carrier in a nation lacking ball carriers. The Dragons are, at best, a long-term project. Chairman David Buttress has set the target of becoming the best Welsh team within 5 years. It seems odd that Moriarty would opt to join a project team rather than one of the two clubs out west who are currently competing in the European Champions Cup. Short of a huge injection of cash over the next year or two, the Dragons are not likely to challenge for titles in the short to medium term.
There will be those who believe that any such quibbles are no more than sour grapes. Clubs and supporters of clubs who have grown used to seeing themselves as the Dragons’ superiors, to viewing matches as the Dragons as bonus point certainties, won’t like having these upstarts competing for star players.
So, sour grapes? Probably, yes. But that should not deflect attention from questions over the relationship between the Dragons, PRW and the WRU.
Firstly, ownership of the Dragons is unclear. While it is generally assumed that the WRU own the Dragons – including its ground – in their entirety – and that was certainly the impression given by the WRU when it took over the club, David Buttress was recently appointed Chairman and suggested on Twitter last week that that is not the case. So who owns the Dragons? Is it 100% owned by the WRU, or is it now back to the kind of 50/50 model of the past 13 years?
Secondly, what costs does the WRU take on? It cleared the NGDs debts, but we don’t yet know whether that cost anything or whether the previous directors wrote those debts off. The WRU did, however, buy the ground from Newport RFC for around £2.85m (once outstanding loans were repaid). It paid for and installed a new pitch for this season. There are questions around the administration of the club. As all employees are WRU employees, presumably the WRU pays all staff, including the administration. Are costs recharged to the Dragons? Are the other three being disadvantaged by additional WRU investment into the Dragons?
Thirdly, where is the money coming from with which the Dragons are able to outbid not only the WRU but other clubs in Wales who, apparently, have much larger playing budgets? The RSA does not allow the WRU to put more money into the Dragons than any of the other three (save for the allocation of NDCs), and Buttress is so far the only new investor to arrive, as far as is publicly known. £400,000 is a lot for one player, but there are now rumours that George North may also join the Dragons – this time on an NDC – next season. That’s a lot of money for a club to find when it’s been bimbling along with such a small playing budget.
The ever-excellent Chris Kirwan, in his Argus column, stressed the importance of sustainability and transparency to the Dragons revival.
The former is a matter for the Dragons. The latter is of interest to the rest of the Welsh rugby. It is vital that the improving relationship between the WRU and PRW is not jeopardised by a lack of transparency. The relationship between the WRU and the Dragons needs to be clarified. Until then, the rest of Welsh rugby will welcome signs of a Dragons revival, but will wonder how it is being achieved.
This article first appeared on gwladrugby.wordpress.com