When Wales arrive at Twickenham to face England on Saturday, a whole country will come together once again in a bid for victory over their oldest and bitterest rivals.
For 80 minutes, Welsh rugby will be united behind a common cause. But scratch beneath the surface and it soon becomes apparent the country’s national game is engulfed in a battle for survival. Welsh rugby is hurting and there could be more pain to come.
There are problems everywhere you look. Wales’ four professional sides – Dragons, Cardiff, Ospreys and Scarlets – are fighting for their very existence. They would not have survived the pandemic were it not for an emergency loan. More of that later.
Despite the recent Six Nations win over Scotland, Welsh rugby is mired in problems
Ospreys (pictured) and other pro sides Cardiff, Dragons and Scarlets are struggling to survive
The Welsh Rugby Union’s development pathway is also underperforming and the results of a lack of alignment in its structures and working relationship with the regions is already causing problems.
National head coach Wayne Pivac is picking up the pieces, desperately trying to find the talent to succeed a golden generation which for all its success, is now the wrong side of 30.
‘The game in Wales is deserving of criticism,’ Scarlets chairman Simon Muderack told Sportsmail.
‘Inconsistency of fixtures, timing of kick-offs, availability of international players and the stop-start nature of the season are all problems we have to battle. There are big challenges.’
Look under any nook or cranny in Welsh rugby and you will find an issue that needs resolving. At grassroots level, playing numbers have been hit hard by the pandemic although the WRU’s governance structure does mean the amateur game is protected by annual funding of £11.8million.
No British country – not even England’s Rugby Football Union – pays as much on community rugby as Wales.
‘When you’ve got the tail wagging the dog, you’re not going to see growth,’ Muderack said. Things are very different when it comes to the professional game in Wales, however.
A debate has raged for more than a decade over whether or not the semi-professional Welsh Premiership – the league which sits below the four regions who play in the United Rugby Championship – is the right model. No-one seems to be able to agree on the right path. It often seems as if Welsh rugby would rather be divided than together.
‘We need to make decisions far more rapidly,’ Muderack said.
‘I’ve never worked in a business where the value of time is so disregarded. It’s incredible. It’s like we have all the time in the world, but we don’t. The rugby world is evolving on a daily basis. We need to get on with things or risk being left behind. Some might say that has already happened.’
Wales coach Wayne Pivac is trying to find the talent to succeed a golden generation
Wales will arrive at Twickenham as defending Six Nations champions. But with the pillars which surround Pivac’s team crumbling, the pertinent question being asked is can the national side can still achieve success in the years to come?
Wales has always been a hotbed of rugby talent, but since the country’s Under-20 side claimed a junior Six Nations Grand Slam in 2016, the number of world-class players coming through the Welsh pathway has slowed. Pivac is the one having to deal with the consequences.
Wales’ age grade system has been described to Sportsmail by a source close to the pathway as a ‘drop-in centre for coaches’ with no long-term plan or consistency of employment.
A lack of investment in junior coaching at the regions and the WRU means that when talented young Welsh players are offered deals in England which align their schooling, rugby development and a clear pathway to the future, there is not really a decision to be made for those involved.
Louis Rees-Zammit and Ioan Lloyd have both been lost from the Cardiff system to Gloucester and Bristol respectively. More talented youngsters in Immanuel Feyi-Waboso and Louie Hennessey-Booth will soon follow the same path by leaving Cardiff for Wasps and Bath respectively.
‘There is a two to three-year period coming now where it’s going to be tough. We’ll have to go through some pain, but there is so much hope out there,’ the source added.
Former Wales wing Nigel Walker is the man charged with reviving Welsh rugby’s development system and he has a huge job on his hands to get the ship sailing back in the right direction.
‘We’ve acknowledged we probably would want the regional game to be a bit more successful on the pitch,’ admitted WRU chief executive Steve Phillips. ‘Nobody is more disappointed with the results than the regions themselves and indeed the players. We want every team in Wales to do well.
Nigel Walker has a huge job on his hands reviving Welsh rugby’s development system
’Wales’ four regions are operating with one hand tied behind their back. At the height of the pandemic and with no rugby being played, the WRU had no choice other than to take out a £20million government loan to keep Wales’ professional sides afloat.
Not only are the regions liable to repay that loan, but WRU payments to them – which are structured under the Professional Rugby Agreement – also dropped from £26m to £3m. The result has been a total inability to compete with the cash-rich clubs in England and France and the Irish provinces.
That doesn’t look like changing at any point in the near future. The regions are also competing in a dead duck of a league in the URC which, as a cross-border competition, has been hit hard by Covid-19. It also has poor attendances as a direct result of the fact its team’s best players are often unavailable and officiating problems.
Of 11 European games played by the Welsh regions in the Heineken Champions Cup and European Challenge Cup this season, all were lost.
‘The loan is life or death for us,’ said Muderack, as discussions remain ongoing about refinancing the £20m sum over a 20-year period. Phillips hopes such a deal can be concluded imminently.
‘What we don’t want to do is simply survive, we actually want to grow and be successful,’ Muderack added. ‘Ultimately, the professional game in Wales has serious room for improvement.
‘I’m excited by that because I think it’s so inefficient and so handicapped at the moment that it can be improved fairly quickly. The regional relationship with the WRU needs to improve dramatically.‘
We need to be working much more closely together. The fundamental challenge we have is the commercial performance of team Wales and the WRU is underwritten by the four professional regions, or three really because one of them (Dragons) is owned by the Union.
‘The professional game is the first place money is taken from to protect everything else. That is wrong. We need a long-term, strategic and correctly funded plan. It needs to recognise the opportunities available in the professional game for the next 10 years, just as our private equity investment partners from CVC recognise there is an opportunity. We need to embrace that.
Most of Wales’ golden generation of players are on the wrong side of 30
‘Private equity investment means that for the first time, rugby will become an economically viable sport. It has effectively been amateur for 150 years and for the last 25 we’ve been paying players.
‘In that time, we’ve been saying we’ve gone professional, but a lot of the governance and self-interest has still been very amateur. What keeps me up at night is can we now move fast enough?‘
‘What we don’t want to be is left behind in Wales. We have to be at the top table embracing the opportunity. It’s essential we do that otherwise the game here will die.’
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