Welsh rugby should look beyond borders in regional shake-up

Old Deer Park - home of London Welsh

The news that Welsh rugby’s regional structure is set for yet another revamp will come as no surprise to anyone who has sat in a three-quarters empty Cardiff City Stadium watching The Blues try – and fail – to inspire some kind of atmosphere.

With low attendances across the board, and a general climate of belt tightening, clearly the current system, whereby the Welsh Rugby Union ploughs equal amounts of money into the four regional sides – Cardiff Blues, Newport Gwent Dragons, Scarlets and Ospreys – is ripe for reconsideration. Particularly since none of the Welsh regions has yet to win Europe’s premier club competition, the Heineken Cup, in contrast with the Irish regions’ five titles (including four of the last six).

In its report of the possible restructure, Welsh current affairs programme Week In Week Out quotes WRU chief executive Roger Lewis as saying several funding permutations are on the table. These include something akin to the Irish model, whereby three main provincial sides receiving equal funding, whilst the fourth receives less money and is primarily used to develop young players. But, says Roger Lewis, “the permutations could be greater than that. It could be one and three, two and two or three and one…We’ve got to come up with the best solution for all of Welsh rugby.”

WIWO also spoke to Regional Rugby Wales chief executive, Stuart Gallacher, who admitted: “We have to look at different ways of running the professional game in Wales”.

One of the biggest problems facing the Welsh regions is the financial pull of rival leagues (i.e. England’s Aviva Premiership and, increasingly, the Top 14 in France). This has led to something of a player drain, with Welsh internationals including James Hook, Lee Byrne and Andy Powell all currently plying their trade outside their home country, potentially creating additional problems of player availability for international matches.

Whatever way you slice the WRU funding pie, attempting to match the financial firepower of the English and French leagues is surely a zero sum game for Welsh rugby. But if you can’t beat them, then why not join them?

A rugby side with very strong Welsh connections is already close to the top of the 2nd tier of the English league pyramid. If the entire Welsh regional structure is up for grabs, why not make London Welsh one of the regions the WRU funds in future? On top of the club’s existing strengths and fine traditions (7 British & Irish Lions on the victorious New Zealand tour in 1971), the extra investment should (of course it’s no guarantee) lead to promotion to the Premiership. With that achieved, Welsh internationals who want to try their hand in the English game would have an ideal destination – and a club that would be far more forgiving when it came to international release dates than the rest of the Premiership. The rugby would also be more competitive more often than in the Celtic League, hence aiding player development.

Another, even more radical scenario, would see some regional funding being earmarked for a new ‘Welsh-owned’ franchise in France. Something along the lines of a ‘Bretagne Gallois’ side (based in Rennes). In this case significantly more initial investment would be required, but given the pot of TV money available in France, significantly higher income could also be generated in time (not to mention the valuable cultural and tourism links with our fellow Celts in Brittany).

Of course, given the insularity and in-fighting for which Welsh rugby administration is known, the chances of either of these ‘expansion’ scenarios coming to fruition is slim to say the least. More likely we will see the Dragons becoming the Connacht of Wales, whilst the Scarlets, Ospreys and Blues each take a bigger share of the pie. A solution that would be no more than a sticking plaster when it is surgery that is needed.

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