As we enter the New Year, Geraint Powell takes a look at some of the big issues facing Welsh rugby in 2018. And there are some very critical issues.
Nobody can deny that 2018 is shaping-up to being a momentous year for Welsh rugby, for the in-tray at the Welsh Rugby Union is bulging with numerous difficult issues to be confronted.
(1) WRU governance modernisation
The WRU requires a streamlined strategic 8-12 person board of directors. Deep down, nearly everybody accepts that this is a best practice efficient strategic governance requirement.
There was not the strategic vision, at least widely at board level, if not in some senior executive positions, to appreciate the need when the sport turned professional for the governing body to take control and set-up a new sustainable resource concentration tier of representative rugby between Test rugby and the old 1st class clubs for the players at those clubs good enough to become fully professional athletes. New Zealand did it. Ireland did it. We did not.
For the WRU to set-up North, South, East, West regions, to centrally contract the players and to bring in devolved investors, especially such investors in the absence of historic provincial unions, to drive devolved affinities, engagement and consequentially income streams.
There is no point in tempers fraying, in being people emotional, in people personalising and attacking the present incumbents. It is simply that the days of a general committee, however described, running a sporting federation are over. We need a calm debate on the future.
As with any such proposed governance modernisation, the success or failure is always in the detail.
What will be the skill sets, in relation to rugby and not just in relation to business, still required to sit on this slimmed down strategic board?
What will be the nature, composition, and powers of any WRU Council and the five regional boards? Will the WRU Council have at least one reserved main WRU board seat?
There are contentious issues, particularly whether the professional regional and semi-professional club games should have their own main board seats, as opposed to just seats on regional boards.
If administration of and strategic recommendation for, if not final authority over, the club game is devolved to a WRU Council, will we finally have an unequivocal acceptance that Martyn Phillips is running both the Test and non-Test tiers of the professional game?
If so, do we need a so-called professional game “benefactors’ trade union seat” on the main WRU board and seemingly rewarding 1995-2018 failure? PRW representatives can regularly be invited ex-officio, at least until the need for the organisation is over. We require intellectual coherence regarding our governance structures, not more hybrids and fudges.
The era of the non-aligned districts is over, and the clubs need to elect their representatives to constitute five far more powerful aligned regional boards and a WRU Council, and leave those six entities to appoint – from themselves or externally on their behalf – the personnel to the main board with the requisite rugby and corporate expertise to represent their clubs and the regional teams.
But the principle of a smaller strategic board needs to be accepted, with the fine print of the new governance to be thrashed out in the coming year.
(2) Competition pathways review
If the primary aim of 2018 is federation governance modernisation, the last thing that anybody wanted is a potentially highly explosive competition pathway review.
The demise of the British + Irish Cup at the end of this season, the English Championship clubs walking away in the face of the on-field rugby and off-field consumer interest and commercial failure of our pathway focussed part-time regional ‘A’ teams euphemistically called “Premiership Selects”, has precipitated a conversation best avoided until governance modernisation has been completed.
This is a hopeless task, in the foreseeable future trying to align the fundamentally non-aligned and trying to reconcile the obviously irreconcilable.
Welsh 1st class club rugby fans will never be happy to go back to a pathway focussed small 8 to 10 club WRU Premiership, generating a pitiful number of league matches over a season. The Western Mail Championship is fondly remembered by many, before the nightmare of national leagues and then constant professional era tinkering.
Most such club consumers want a 12 to 18 club double round robin home/away league season, a habit forming fortnightly home match. They certainly don’t want blocks of fallow weekends, for ‘A’ teams that not even 98%+ of existing fans of the regions would ever watch.
Such a marathon club league format is very limited for the pathway role, too many games and the potential professional game talent spread across far too many clubs.
In contrast to a small WRU Premiership, Welsh rugby will one day be ready for full-time regional ‘A’ teams. It won’t be ready in time for 2018-19. The alignment mechanism of regionalism has to be embedded before embedding full-time ‘A’ teams, or pyramidal problems will simply multiply.
The existing disconnect across Welsh rugby between producer driven products and consumer demand is already troubling and a needless heavy financial burden.
Will the WRU be smart, implementing a transition period over a number of years towards full regional ‘A’ teams?
Perhaps starting with a September-December regional ‘A’ league against the Irish provinces, without closing down any WRU Premiership weekends, the regional ‘A’ players then returning to the WRU Premiership at the half-way point and the return fixtures?
A temporary compromise, strategically looking towards the horizon, and one admittedly better suited to young forwards than to young backs.
With the Blues leadership hostile to regional rugby, with no demand in Cardiff or Merthyr or Pontypridd to watch any such regional ‘A’ team, will the WRU until attitudes change in eastern Glamorgan be brave enough to place the fourth team in North Wales and require that the Blues pathway be allocated to that team in an amalgamation with North Wales talent?
A process of regional engagement building is required, a Sunday afternoon slot entrenched, and without WRU Premiership finances instantly walking off a (£1.7 million) financial cliff.
We shall see, but this review certainly has the potential to derail 75% governance modernisation unless handled incredibly professionally and sensitively.
(3) Team Wales
The king is dead, long live the king!
Not quite, but his pre-planned abdication after the 2019 World Cup is rapidly approaching.
Warren Gatland will probably then return to New Zealand for a Super Rugby coaching job. It might even be a move to his home region, the Chiefs, a move likely to be sanctioned by likely post-2019 All Blacks head coach and fellow ‘Mooloo’ Ian Foster.
There are strong candidates for an appointment that will take place this calendar year.
The bookies favourite is likely to be Dave Rennie, a great coaching innovator in Super Rugby with the Chiefs and now testing himself in northern hemisphere rugby at the Glasgow Warriors district.
Another Kiwi Super Rugby candidate is Chris Boyd of the Hurricanes, a coach with a specific interest in pathway issues and with experience of coaching in South Africa.
The third Kiwi is Wayne Pivac at the Scarlets, a coach who has recruited well and built a fine dry paddock squad on a limited budget down in Dyfed. Albeit that he is now closely associated with one Welsh domestic team, never a great help to any Welsh national coach candidate.
Other candidates may emerge, and I personally expect the WRU to have a good look at Scott Robertson if the Crusaders have another strong Super Rugby campaign this year. His playing and coaching CV is certainly well aligned with the issues facing the next Welsh national coach.
The other aspect of the Team Wales big issue is the evolution in playing style, the ability to win matches through a wider variety of game plans to fit the evolving global game. The Six Nations includes difficult away matches in London and Dublin, a very difficult tournament if Wales lose their opening home match against Scotland.
There is certainly going to be a battle for the 12 jersey, with Jamie Roberts unready for Test retirement and with Owen Williams and Hadleigh Parkes challenging Scott Williams for the more expansive ‘second five eighth’ inside centre role.
The competition behind Sam Warburton for the seven jersey remains ferocious, a fact only disguised by so many injuries in that position in November.
(4) Alignment through regionalism
The final big issue for Welsh rugby in 2018 is what further strides forward to an integrated small country strategic pyramidal model can be made via the primary alignment mechanism of representative regionalism.
The focus is currently on the Dragons, an injury ravaged inherited low budget squad but one which is focussed on 2018-19 and which is already reversing the recent player exodus as the likes of Ross Moriarty, Richard Hibbard, Rhodri Williams and Jordan Williams are already committed to leaving English rugby to play for the Gwent region next season.
The buzzword is “evolution” but, make no mistake, this is a revolution in terms of the flawed 2003 model.
If not the Storming of the Bastille in 1789, it is hardly a low key 1688 Glorious Revolution.
It is more akin to St Petersburg in the spring of 1917. The Tsar left unable to rely on the loyalty of his elite guard regiments, critically the local training battalions of the Preobrazhensky and Semyonovsky regiments. The result was a fatal crack in the edifice, the Romanov dynasty ended, but a future Bolshevik putsch to be avoided in Welsh rugby.
With the Ospreys looking nervously at the Premiership position of Swansea City and calculating the financial implications of their relegation in May, with the Blues dependent upon the non-rugby sections of the Athletic Club carrying significant risk and the council sanctioning an international convention centre in the wrong city centre location, and with the Scarlets dependent upon the numbers on Nigel Short’s Euromillions tickets and the council writing-off or restructuring debt, it is inevitable that the focus will be on the 6-18 month period of the three year project at the Dragons.
But will be see alignment elsewhere? Will the Blues start acting like a regional organisation, for they are paid millions to be that rather than merely a professional team?
And will the ‘Holy Grail’ for aligners begin in the summer of 2018, strategically constructed and consumer friendly – including viewed through the prism of regionalism – fixture lists for 2018-19?
Working down the WRU pyramid, the fixture list for each tier built with reference to the tiers above it. Why would you ideally want the Dragons at home the same weekend as Pontypool or Ebbw Vale? Why would you want Pontypool Utd at home to, say, Croesyceiliog or Cwmbran on the same weekend as Pontypool are at home?
Compiling a strategic fixture list is hard work and fast work, little sleep for a handful of organisers for a week in the middle of summer, even with good preparation work, but a governing body should commercially service its entire pyramid. The WRU will always be a union of clubs.
Pressing for an early release of Pro14 and European fixtures and then building a whole pyramid commercially logical set of fixtures around the Wales and regional team matches.
It is time for a break from the past, a forgettable non-aligned disjointed mess of everybody doing their own thing without reference to others.
Yes, 2018 is shaping up to be a momentous year in Welsh rugby.