Thankfully there were several other suggestions in the report, many revolving around the financing of player salaries. Fundamentally, the long-term problem is identified as a without of cash, which the report seeks to address. By doing so it inevitably brings WRU governance into focus, which is not always a happy tale. for example, in 2021 the WRU told the regions that their funding for the 2022-23 season would be £23.5m, but additional the caveat that the figure is ‘indicative only and based on a number of current assumptions which may vary’. In other words, it depends on WRU income and isn’t binding. According to reports in Wales, not one of the four Directors of Rugby has their budgets for next season, making planning impossible.
Although Covid was an exceptional circumstance, it neatly illustrated the imbalance in the relationship between the regions and Union. In 2020 the regions had their central funding from the WRU, which covers the Union’s payment for the use of the regions’ players for international duty, cut from £26m to £3m despite the fact that the vicinity’s players nevertheless played for Wales that year. The WRU’s solution was to take out a £20m loan which the four regions now have to pay back over 20 years (the amateur game’s £11.8m funding was delivered in complete because it would be too politically difficult not to do so).
At the same time the WRU is investing money in a series of long-term non-rugby projects, such as a hotel in Cardiff city centre. No surprise relations are so fraught.
What Welsh rugby needs is a plan, and a unifying sense of direction. With that in mind, this report could not have come at a better time. Everyone in Welsh rugby has a shared goal – to have a winning national team and regions that can compete for silverware – but there’s no consensus around how to unprotected to that end.
A three-, five- or already 10-year strategic plan for Welsh rugby is now urgently needed. It should be root and branch, starting with the schools and amateur clubs, and how they satisfy into the semi-pro and specialized set-up. I just don’t believe there is less talent in Welsh rugby than in past generations, but much more effort needs to be taken to nurture it and give it direction. There are currently four academies – why not look at two, which should play the Irish and English academies on a regular basis. Young players should also be brought up by the semi-specialized clubs to ensure late developers are not missed. As ever, all young players need to play more regularly.
Private finance needs to be urgently sought, not least to make the regions sustainable by ensuring that player salaries represent value for money, which I’m not sure is always the case in Wales just now. More generally, the specialized regions need to be prioritised as the best route to achieving a successful national side. That, for example, method the amateur clubs no longer having any say in the way specialized rugby is run (at the moment if 10 per cent of Welsh clubs call for an EGM, they can overturn any WRU decision). I know from Scotland this is a painful change, but it is a necessary one.
But most of all, the four regions need to be maintained. As the song says, you don’t know what you’ve got til it’s gone…
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