By David Roberts
A year ago Anthony Buchanan launched an ‘SOS’ appeal to try to safeguard the future of Llanelli rugby club.
How could one of the greatest club rugby names in the world game be under threat, most people thought, but Buchanan wanted to let everyone know just how close to extinction the club he played for and served for so long actually was.
The original ‘Scarlets’, formed in 1872, had just hung onto their Welsh Premiership status with a dramatic play-off victory over Championship winners Pontypool and the former Wales prop set about improving performance on and off the field for last season.
At the time he was still a member of both the WRU Board and World Rugby Council, but stepped down from both roles after last year’s World Cup in Japan. Now all his efforts are going into keeping Llanelli at the top end of what is now described as the ‘Community Game’ in Wales.
“I received a good reaction to my pleas for help last year, although not perhaps as much as I was hoping for. What it did do was highlight the club’s position and vulnerability and led to us having a much better season,” said Buchanan.
“The team performed much better on the pitch, our financial position improved greatly, but there is still a lot more ground for us to make up. We are far from out of the woods.
“There are some big questions to be asked and answered in Welsh rugby and the true purpose of the Premiership is among the biggest of them. Funding from the WRU has been cut by 50%, with further pressure to go right back to the days of not paying anyone to play.
“While that is an admirable ambition, I’m not sure how realistic that is when you are asking players to give up more and more time to train to ensure they can meet the standards required at that level. There is a place for a properly managed and costed semi-pro game in Wales and it needs to fit into the pathway to the regions.
“Premiership clubs have been told they have little or no part to play in the professional process, yet more and more Academy and budding professionals are going to need to use those very same teams to get game time. We all needed greater clarity and leadership at the top of end of the so-called Community game.
“Every time we are told we are not relevant it is another commercial nail in our coffin. Why would anyone want to denigrate and further relegate a level of rugby that has helped so many players graduate to the regions and beyond.
“If you look at the team that played for Llanelli against Cardiff when we opened Parc y Scarlets in November, 2008, you’ll find Ken Owen, Dom Day, Aaron Shingler and Josh Turnbull in the pack, Rhys Priestland and Jonathan Davies in the back line and Gareth Davies on the bench.
“Add in players like Lee Byrne, Liam Williams, James Davies and Scott Williams, as well as Emyr Phillips and Wyn Jones from other clubs in the Scarlets region, and you can immediately see the value of the Premiership as a breeding ground for future stars.”
The big concern for Buchanan is that if Llanelli are relegated to the Championship or beyond they will go out of existence. While he is not seeking preferential treatment, he believes Welsh rugby needs to find a way to ensure the traditional club strong holds can have a fighting chance to stay alive.
“The Scarlets wouldn’t exist without Llanelli and they play in a stadium that was only made possible through the sale of our club’s former home. It is a similar situation in Newport and Cardiff,” he added.
“What the WRU, and the game as a whole in Wales, needs to ask itself is can it afford not to have the big brand rugby clubs, which are based in the biggest towns, thriving? There is a real danger that clubs like Llanelli, Newport and Cardiff could simply fade away and die.
“I’m working as hard as I can to avoid that doomsday scenario ever happening, but I’m involved in a huge fight for survival – make no mistake about that!
“We seen Neath and Cross Keys join Pontypool in the Championship, Ebbw Vale went through a summer of financial pain a year ago and now Bridgend are battling to stay afloat after the Ospreys reversed out of their ownership at the club.
“The COVID-19 crisis hasn’t helped our collective cause, nor that of so many other clubs, but we’ve been working hard behind the scenes to re-sign players. We’re confident we’ll stay on an upward curve and we’re determined to provide a quality rugby experience for everyone and anyone who wants to play in our famous jersey.”