The WRU have some big decisions to make. Pic: Getty Images.

The Welsh Regions Have Seen A Dramatic Fall From Grace . . . As WRU Thrash Around Looking For Answers

By Stuart Taylor

As the latest dust covering settles on another pathetic domestic season, many feel it will take more than a symbolic spring clean to solve the structural issues that continue to trouble Welsh rugby.

After years of failing to maintain the upkeep of Welsh rugby, independent consultants Oakwell Sports Advisory were commissioned to write a report entitled ‘Independent review into the financial health of Welsh rugby’.

Meeting upon meetings are still being held to look into the now-famous Oakwell report findings.

As Welsh rugby and the wider rugby world awaited the report’s findings, there was a significant leak.

The report is said to advise reducing the number of professional regions by one; this was deemed as one of the ways to fix the problems that have blighted Welsh rugby for years.

You will be forgiven for thinking that we have been here before.

Indeed we have been here before.

In 2019 the Welsh Rugby Union came close to merging the Ospreys and the Scarlets in a cost-cutting exercise. However, common sense prevailed, and the status quo of the four regions remained.

Amid the backdrop of regional uncertainty, Warren Gatland’s Wales celebrated another Grand Slam season. Gatland’s men continued to deliver and would have reached the final of the World Cup had it not been for conceding silly penalties during their semi-final defeat to eventual winners South Africa.

On the surface, everything looked to be shiny. However, cracks were deepening below the triumphant public persona of the national team’s success.

The impact of Covid-19 in 2019 meant the WRU had to cut costs. As a result, they reduced staffing levels and player salaries and made the most of the Government Coronavirus Job Retention scheme.

Fast forward to 2022, under the watch of Wayne Pivac, Wales went from defending six nations champions to the embarrassment of losing at home to Italy 22-21 for the first time in their 141 year history.

The defeat prompted an independent inquiry into the demise of Welsh rugby with the commissioning of the Oakwell Report.

Many can see why getting rid of one of the regions, Dragons and Ospreys are the touted ones, may make financial sense.

The WRU’s projected £26m allocation of funding between the four regions for the season just gone dropped to £3m. The regions still have to repay the £20m loan the WRU took out to offset the impact of the pandemic.

The Oakwell Report estimates that disbanding a region would save the governing body up to £8.9m right away. Money talks, and it is easy to see why a saving of £8.9m is inviting.

All four Welsh teams endured a dire season. All failed to win a game in European competition. In addition, all teams finished in the bottom half of the United Rugby Championship, meaning no Welsh team quailed for the league play-offs

To add to their woes, only the Ospreys will be involved in the European Heineken Champions Cup next season. In truth, the Welsh regions have been poor for years, but this season poor became woeful to the point of being pitied by those looking on from the outside.

“This year’s European competitions were an unmitigated train wreck for the Welsh,” said Scotland and Lions legend Sir Ian McGeehan.

“Wales are heading in the wrong direction fast. Throw in the Six Nations defeat to Italy and their financial implosion, and it is little wonder there is a mood of despondency in Wales,” he added.

Reducing the number of regions to three from four will only provide a short-term solution. It may look good on the WRU’s financial spreadsheet, but reducing the number of regions also means reducing an already small playing pool.

It could be argued that the standard of coaching at all the regions isn’t up to scratch.

The buck stops with the head coach and Dean Ryan at the WRU owned Dragons, and Dai Young at Cardiff have both failed to deliver this season.

There have at least been some faint signs of encouragement at the Ospreys under Toby Booth; to a lesser extent, the same can be said of Dwayne Peel’s Scarlets.

However, all four head coaches will come under pressure next season if performances fail to improve.

Like any structure, it starts with laying solid foundations and working your way up. In Welsh rugby’s case, the foundations begin at the grassroots level.

Due to the global pandemic, participation numbers at the junior level have dwindled. As a result, a higher level of funding must be provided to junior clubs to ensure they can attract children and teenagers to take part in rugby again.

The grassroots amateur clubs should be funded to a level where they are able to provide children and youth players with quality coaching and facilities. In addition, each age-group player must aspire to play for their club at senior level before moving on to a higher level of the game.

Many believe that too many young players in regional academies are not playing enough senior rugby for their clubs at an amateur level.

If players are not coached basic skills at a young age, this leads to gaping holes in their core skillset by the time they reach senior level. Furthermore, the missed skills mean standards decline at all levels of the game.

All players should have a good grounding at amateur clubs before progressing to semi-professional level, then full professional status with one of the four regions, and then international honours.

As things stand, the Indigo Group Premiership consists of 12 teams, including world-famous clubs like Llanelli, Swansea, Neath, Cardiff, and  Newport, which come under the amateur community rugby umbrella.

Currently, all 12 semi-pro clubs receive £50.000 funding from the WRU. However, the clubs believe they need to be funded to enable them to play a more prominent role in the future of Welsh rugby, albeit at a semi-professional level.

The WRU has yet to come to an agreement on the level of funding for the 2023/24 season. However, with negotiations ongoing, clubs want £110,000 each, eventually increasing to £150,000 if agreed.

In 2018, as part of Project Reset, the Professional Rugby Board was established. The PRB has representatives from the WRU and the four regions. The board was formed to run the professional game in Wales.

However, currently, we still have a situation where all amateur clubs are able to cast their vote to make decisions on what happens in the professional game. Until this changes, Welsh rugby will continue to endure the petty infighting that has been the dry rot of the game for decades.

The WRU is a multi-million-pound business which has a global reach, but amateur committee members are hampering all the critical decisions

The PRB should run the 12 semi-pro clubs and the four regions, and an amateur board should control the community clubs. Finally, the WRU should run all Wales national teams with all three boards knowing their defined role and collaborating only when necessary.

The stumbling block is that clubs at the semi-pro level are not on the same page.

Some clubs view their role at semi-pro level is to help the next generation of professional rugby players for the regional teams; unfortunately, other clubs are happy to pay large sums of money to ageing players.

For far too long, mediocre players have been earning a highly inflated living as professional or even semi-professional without having had a proper grounding by playing senior rugby at an amateur level. As a result, standards have continued to decline year on year.

Each club at semi-pro level should be assigned a certain number of players each season who are on development contracts at each of the four regions. Some would argue that this is already being done but is very much on an as and when basis.

Young academy players should be playing every week at semi-pro level. It is the only way they will develop. If they are not ready for the semi-pro level, they should drop back to their local club to help them build experience.

The end of this season has seen a player cull by the Welsh regions. There have been sob stories of players not being kept on. In truth, most of the players let go by the regions should have been playing at semi-pro level.

Some released players have gone on to earn contracts at championship level in the English league system; good luck to them, but ideally, the younger ones should have dropped down to the semi-pro level in Wales.

Whatever Oakwell Report recommendation is acted upon, until there is an agreement between all semi-pro clubs on their role in developing Welsh rugby, petty squabbles will continue to infest our game.

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