Saturday, 18 February 2012

Welsh Rugby Union : Time for a review?

Welsh rugby is currently on a high. After a relatively successful - if heart-breaking - World Cup last year, the national side have made a great start to the current Six Nations – even managing to draw 10,000 people to an open training session. However, the regional sides have struggled to attract decent crowds, threatening their financial sustainability. Back in December the average gate at a Welsh regional home game in the Pro12 was just 6,300. Is Welsh Rugby peaking before a fall?

The Regions – success or failure?

The Labour MP for Pontypridd, Owen Smith, wrote an article on Wales Home a few weeks ago effectively calling for a "valleys regional side" and saying that rugby fans have been "sold short" by the current structure.

I'm not sure this is the right call for a number of reasons.

Firstly, I believe there's a rose-tinted view of the game pre-regions. Attendances weren't great at any of the clubs in the old Welsh Premiership/Welsh-Scottish Premier. Clubs like Pontypridd did take massive support on the road – as highlighted here in a game against Bridgend - but the clubs were kept afloat largely off the back of wealthy benefactors. It was unsustainable. Creating the regions was the right call however unpopular it was and still is.

Secondly, there's the question of talent. Isn't it sometimes better to promote quality over quantity? I'm sure many of the towns across Wales could support a top-flight team – but could they support a modern, professional team, paying top-end salaries? Unlike football, you generally can't just pick up a rugby ball and play at the top level. Rugby players are generally "made" or "born" and due to the highly specialised positions, you need the strongest, biggest or quickest person for each one.

One of the reasons the regions were created was to boost the national team, and by and large I think it's succeeded. That doesn't mean I'm saying it's perfect, clearly there are issues that need to be resolved.

What's gone wrong?

BBC Wales' Week In Week Out examined this a few weeks ago, following a family from the Bridgend valleys to see why they turned their back on the Ospreys, but continue to follow Bridgend Ravens and the national side.

We have to remember that Welsh rugby has always been rather tribal. It's a well worn point but expecting Pontypridd fans to support a "Cardiff" team is a bit like expecting Cardiff City and Swansea City to merge. These wern't regions – they were superclubs. I can't ignore the demise of the Celtic Warriors – effectively the "valley region" - in this debate. However, the Warriors were on the track to becoming just another M4 club. The town of Bridgend and the southern half of the county is more an extension of the Vale of Glamorgan and Cardiff commuter belt after all. Although there were ambitions for the Warriors to relocate to a central location like Llantrisant, the WRU clearly had their heart set on only 4 regions from the outset.

The number of games on television is also cited as a concern. It often means games are moved to suit the broadcasters (an issue in football too) with a big carrot of TV money. It generally doesn't put bums on seats. At the end of a working week, the last thing your average family wants to do is go through the effort of travelling from home to an out of town stadium or a city centre on a Friday night. It's easier to just stick the telly on.

Owen Smith does have a point about the game becoming a "commodity" instead of something that belongs to the community. Sadly, that's not just confined to rugby. Commercial pressures are being exerted on all sports. Fans clearly want to a "connection" with players and want to see a "local boy'girl do good". There's a disconnect between the clubs ( and their communities) and the regions and nothing's been done to try and bridge that gap.

In trying to solve these issues, I think we actually have to take a leaf from America's NFL and New Zealand's domestic rugby set up.

Proposed new structure for Welsh rugby union

(Click to enlarge)

Schools Rugby

  • A focus on developing technical skills, developing interest and knowledge of the laws.
  • A gentle introduction to tackling, starting with tag rugby.
  • Tag rugby games against primary schools with uncontested scrums on smaller pitches. Full-contact competitive games shouldn't start until Under-12 level.
  • Training sessions with pro-players in the respective region nearing retirement (for coaching/referee qualifications)
  • Retain competitive inter-school/college league and cup competitions for older teenagers. Games should ideally not clash with regional or club fixtures.

At the bottom are the schools. Schools play an important role in getting kids interested in the game in the first place. Skills should be introduced slowly and gradually. I can only speak for myself, but as someone who can be described as "vertically challenged" - and one of the youngest pupils in my year - having to play full-contact rugby as a 10 year old with and against boys sometimes twice my size was absolutely terrifying. It put me off playing the game for life, and threw me right into the arms of football. It's only in the last ten years or so I could even watch a rugby game - the memories were that bad.

As kids get older it should become clear to PE teachers and scouts who had the potential to make a step up to semi-professional, or even professional level. The existing school and college league/cup system should be strengthened so these players can stand out more - the best being selected for the Wales Under-18s or Under-16s national sides.

Club Rugby
  • Should revert to being a wholly amateur game again – Welsh rugby's "heart". Clubs could be run on a cooperative model.
  • National Leagues and cups would largely be unchanged, but perhaps club games could be moved to Sundays to avoid clashing with regional games.
  • Would continue to provide additional training and playing opportunities for youngsters, but more for fun and enjoyment than serious player development.
  • Clubs would continue to "bridge the gap" between the WRU and grassroots and should be the first port of call for fans of all ages.

The "Super 16"
  • A new semi-professional competition based on New Zealand's ITM Cup or US "College Football". It would be the premier domestic competition, and clubs would also compete in the British & Irish Cup.
  • Super 16 sides should use local FE College training facilities as bases.

Four licenced clubs per region based on multiple criteria including  catchment area, club facilities, recent record in the Welsh Premiership and history of player development (indicative list) :

Blues : Cardiff, Pontypridd + 2 others
Ospreys : Bridgend, Swansea, Aberavon, Neath
Dragons : Newport, Ebbw Vale, Cross Keys, + 1 other
Scarlets : Llanelli, Gogledd Cymru, Carmarthen Quins, Llandovery
  • There could be a case for not including clubs from towns/cities that host a regional side.

Season could be formatted as:

1. Two 8-team conferences – East (Scarlets & Ospreys) & West (Blues & Dragons) – playing once against teams in own conference and once against teams in opposite conference. Top 3 in each go to end-of-season play-offs to determine a champion (second v third placed sides, winners v first place sides, grand final) and would also qualify for the following season's British & Irish Cup.

2. A 16-team division with each side playing against the others once either home or away (15 game regular season) followed by a play-off series.
  • The competition could be expanded to include "up and coming" clubs rather easily – that's the reasoning for only playing one game against other sides per season. It also helps make every game an "event" – especially derby games.
  • Under-performing clubs could be replaced by the best performing club in their region every X years (similar to Super League licencing).
  • These "superclubs" would act as the academy for the regional sides, with a minimum number of players aged under-23. Fans would be watching "internationals of the future" as locally as possible.

End of season draft
  • Any under-23 players from the Super 16 would be eligible for the draft and the opportunity to become a professional. "Exceptional talents" can be drafted at a younger age, but no younger than 18.
  • Players should be expected to become a professional by age 23. If not, they should either drop down to the club game, be kept on as a semi-pro player in the Super 16, or be helped into coaching or refereeing.
  • The lowest-placed Welsh region in the Pro12 would have first pick and the highest-placed region the last pick.
  • Regions can trade draft picks with one another for older players out of contract, or for an extra draft pick in a subsequent year. Regions can also pass on a draft pick if they don't want to select any of the remaining players.
  • If a drafted player accepts a contract offer with a region, their school, club (if relevant) and their Super 16 club would be compensated for a set % of the value of the contract or a mutually agreed fee.
  • Drafted players should be under no obligation to accept a contract offer from a region. If a player turns down an offer, the region would have an extra pick. If a drafted player has their heart set on a particular region, the two regions can negotiate a settlement (i.e. Player exchange or draft pick trade).

The Regions
  • Would remain the highest level in the domestic game and the only fully professional level. They would no longer have academys - that role would be undertaken by the "Super 16".
  • A salary cap should remain in place. Older players moving abroad would be replaced by "drafted" players from the Super 16.
  • Central contracting is often mentioned, but is probably unworkable. The regions should maintain some autonomy from the WRU.
  • The regions should be expected to take games "on the road" within their region, especially games where they wouldn't expected to fill more than 40% of their main stadium.
  • As a result, the WRU should work with the "Super 16" sides to improve their stadia to a minimum standard required to host regional games.

In the long term, a fully-blown European league is possible - perhaps 2 divisions with promotion and relegation between them and the Heineken Cup becoming a straight knock out competition. This could lead to the NH nations developing their own "Super 16"/ITM Cup for the clubs left out. Wales could be a step ahead by starting early.


The number of live games shown on TV has been
given as a reason for a slump in regional game attendances.
(Pic : BBC)

The NFL has a system called a"blackout" where local home games are not broadcast on the local TV network to ensure attendances at the games themselves hold up. It's similar to there being no 3pm live games in football.

I'd propose a reciprocal broadcasting arrangement whereby only away games involving respective nations sides/regions in the Pro12 should be broadcast live. So for example, BBC Alba would show Glasgow and Edinburgh away games, and S4C/BBC the Welsh regions playing away. Big derby games could be an exception.

The Pro12 sides could consider a joint TV rights bid like the Premier League, and should also consider commercial terrestrial broadcasters (ITV Wales, STV, TV3) to broadcast highlights – Scrum V effectively acts as a Pro 12 Match of the Day – as well as live matches.

The "Super 16" should also have a (single) live game every week, full coverage of the play-off series or a highlights show. The WRU, Region and Super 16 sides should consider investing in mobile aps and in online "magazine" coverage.


  1. "Unlike football, you generally can't just pick up a rugby ball and play at the top level."

    So you believe just anyone can become a top footballer?
    What a ridiculous comment.

    The reality is rugby in Wales is nowhere near as popular as those vested interests at BBC Wales and The Western Mail would have us believe, no amount of tinkering with the system is going to change that fact.

    While I'd agree that a significant reduction in the number of live TV games might boost crowds, it's the subsidy in the form of very generous, unjustifiable amounts of licence payers money that BBC Wales hands over to the regions that keeps them afloat.

  2. Thanks for the comment Anon.

    "So you believe just anyone can become a top footballer?
    What a ridiculous comment."

    What I meant is football is far more accessable and you can pick up the skills with enough practice. Anyone can play football to at least amateur level. In rugby you not only have highly specialised roles with specific requirements but need the physical build to go with each role (notable exceptions aside).

    I don't believe you can be "drilled" in rugby the same way as football, you either have it or you don't and full-contact rugby's not exactly a "pick up and play" sport either.

    "The reality is rugby in Wales is nowhere near as popular as those vested interests at BBC Wales and The Western Mail would have us believe, no amount of tinkering with the system is going to change that fact."

    Agree 100%.