Wales in crisis: regions the bane of a rugby nation facing the abyss | Michael Aylwin
To a casual observer – and in rugby there are plenty of those – the situation is bewildering. Wales have won more grand slams in the Six Nations era than anyone bar France, who drew level with them on four last season. They boast one of the biggest and most charismatic stadiums in the world and – more of an intangible, but very real all the same – rugby runs more deeply through the nation’s culture than anywhere else in the northern hemisphere.
Yet Welsh rugby’s facade has imploded this past fortnight. Sitting bottom of the Six Nations table after two rounds and before Saturday’s encounter with England in Cardiff, the players walked out of talks with their employers and threatened to derail the entire championship only to relent on Thursday and call off proposed strike action.
Naturally, the fingers of public opinion have been pointing and as always it is the faceless administrators who find themselves drenched in vitriol. The recent exposure of the rotten culture in the Welsh Rugby Union supplies us with ready-made villains. It may well be a fair cop, but as always the reality is more complicated.
To compound the picture, at the top of the table, not to mention the world rankings, sit Ireland on maximum points. How can Wales’s Celtic cousins be thriving so well on broadly the same levels of union income and exactly the same number of professional teams?
There is no doubt that Ireland and their four provinces represent the success story – despite Wales’s grand slams – of the professional era. Let us not delve too deeply, for fear of depression, into either’s international record in the 1990s, but professionalism spurred Ireland into a bottom-to-top alignment that is now delivering at the highest levels, after a couple of decades in which their provinces have transformed rugby below the top tier.
Ireland benefited from certain advantages. It is the biggest nation in Europe with no top-level professional football. Until rugby came along, you couldn’t even watch elite sport in the winter in Dublin, a city of about a million, with another million or so in the surrounding areas.
As the English, Welsh and Scottish agonised over how to structure their professional games, Ireland had ready-made provinces of genuine history and meaning. In the early years of the Celtic League at the start of the century, Leinster played to crowds of a little over 3,000. Within 10 years, their average gate was nudging 20,000. Similar trajectories were enjoyed by Munster and Ulster, as carousing fans, some with only passing acquaintance with the sport, flocked to lend their support.
Wales, paradoxically, were hamstrung by that very passion for rugby. Their first-class game used to be built on 18 town clubs, most of a tiny scale by today’s standards. On the eve of the regional era, 2003, the average gates of the nine Welsh clubs of the Celtic League do not bear much scrutiny, from Cardiff at the top on 7,000, through “mighty” Swansea on 2,600, to Ebbw Vale on 350.
So it was only logical to try to get them to buddy up into the regional system that has been the bane of Welsh rugby’s professional existence. The regional teams have enjoyed a certain success of their own, but, part privately owned, part funded by the union, these awkward hybrids remain unloved. Only Cardiff Rugby have ever broken 10,000 for average attendances, fleetingly and more than 10 years ago.
The Welsh system has relied almost entirely on the success of the national team. This is a dangerous strategy, particularly when your economy is small. Which brings us to the reality that confronts all sports – that of the bottom line.
The prospects for any country in a sport are largely a function of passion (and talent) for that sport multiplied by the size of the economy. The latter never stays still and is different according to who you ask, but the GDP of Ireland (the Republic and Northern) is roughly £450bn. Wales’s is £75bn.
Much is made of the similar levels of revenue published by the two unions each year, but Irish rugby benefits from a degree of private investment way beyond that of Wales. Private schools, for example, provide several unions around the world with millions of pounds’ worth of rugby development services, and the Leinster network alone is more productive than any of them. Wales has four private schools that play rugby, with only Llandovery college bearing any comparison – and that only just – to the juggernaut institutions across the border in the west of England.
There is no national bank in Wales, no national drink and no national airline, the staple sponsors for any medium-sized country’s sports teams. A country the size of Wales will always be at a disadvantage, even if their governance structures are, like Ireland’s, immaculately aligned. Wales’s are not.
Where Ireland’s system feeds from the community game through the provinces, which the union calls its branches, up into the national setup, Wales’s community clubs are generally at loggerheads with the four regions, who are often at loggerheads with each other and almost always at loggerheads with the union.
The union board is populated by members voted into position via the community game, who will never vote themselves off, despite encouragement, while three of the four regions (the Dragons are now 80% owned by the union) are privately run and in effect sit outside the network. The regions are nourished by disbursements from the union, but the national squad 38 system instituted in 2019 has had a severe effect on the finances of each. The union pays 80% of the wages of the NS38 players, but that comes from out of the regional budget.
It is understood that, in the panic to keep players at home, some terrible financial decisions have been taken. Once one player has been overvalued, the knock-on effect in negotiations with the others exacerbates the situation, until regional budgets are all but hoovered up. The overpayment of players is not a problem peculiar to Wales, but when you are the smallest economically, the cracks from any faultlines in your setup are the first to show.
All of which is easier to identify than to fix. The more deeply the sport is ingrained in a culture, the more intransigent are the myriad institutions and actors, big and small, and the more difficult to shift are the legacies inherited, which in rugby’s case are all from the amateur era.
Self-evidently, an aligned system such as the Irish is preferable to the incoherent setups, riven with internal warring, that are the norm in rugby’s old world. To get from here to there would require the relinquishing of how things used to be and an embrace of the new.
Ospreys, Cardiff Rugby (formally known as the Blues), Scarlets and Dragons are 20 years old now, which means a generation is coming through who have known only those outlets for first-class domestic rugby. That may help facilitate a future in which the pathways straighten out and service the whole, but there would have to be a period of realignment in the interim and a holding of nerve, such as the Irish managed in those dark years at the dawn of the professional era.
The Welsh national team may have to forgo some success while it is happening. The WRU fears that a losing national team risks the collapse of the entire system. The tribulations of recent days suggest it is collapsing anyway.