What the Hell Is Going On In: The Welsh Regions?

It’s November, and we know what that means: internationals.  So while in Ireland the IRFU scrabble around to get 40,000 people to watch the Argentina game, across the water in Wales this is really the beginning of the season.  Not content with filling the three-week test calendar, they also have an additional game outside the test window, against Australia.  The same Australia they’ve already played five times in the last 15 months.  Suck that up, regions!

Deccie might look enviously at the prioritisation of the national team in Wales, where it’s the be all and end all for players, supporters and media alike, while the regions form little more than an extended training camp.  But it’s not a model we’d recommend the IRFU to try to replicate.

The latest indictment of the regional franchises was Cardiff’s feeble capitulation to Leinster last week.  Leo Cullen had no problem describing them as ‘soft in the tackle’, as they lost six tries in a scarcely believable first half.  At one point, David Kearney was put into an ocean of space straight through the middle of the pitch; the sort of gap you’d expect to appear after multiple phases of gainline-crossing rugby.  But this was only the second phase!  A try quickly followed after a couple of recycles.

This was no Cardiff B-team, but a line-up featuring their best players; Jamie Roberts, Alex Cuthbert and Sam Warburton included.  Indeed, it was Sam Warburton’s performance which raised the most concern.  Formerly a Lions captain in waiting, he was dominated by his opposite number, the relatively unheralded, but fast-improving academy player, Jordi Murphy.  Indeed, Leinster’s performance was characterised by greased-lightning-fast ball all night long, with Warburton barely leaving an impression at ruck-time.

If you were the Welsh coach, would you pick him?  Based on form you’d look straight past him to Ospreys’ brilliant Jason Tipuric, but Gatland will be aware it ain’t that simple and will expect to see Warburton and Roberts morph into the world-class international versions of themselves under his watch.  But can such a transformation consistently be achieved?  Good form isn’t a tap you can simply turn on and off.  Despite what some media types will try and tell you, there is no ‘Welsh way’, no magic in the air that makes the players suddenly invincible in the red jersey.  The team has obviously been superbly coached by Warren Gatland and Rob Howley, but with Gatland taking a year-long sabbatical to focus on the Lions, a stern test awaits this year for the Welsh team.

Even more concerning must be the long-term damage to Welsh rugby.  The regions play in half-empty, soul-less stadia and have been encumbered with a salary cap, in an effort to make the numbers somehow add up.  A great number of their players have decamped to the Top 14.  While players plying their trade in France is perhaps not the national crisis it’s perceived as on these shores, it does leave the regional sides rather short of quality.

The Welsh national team has had a glorious twelve months, but how long can it keep going?  Wales has a similar playing population to Ireland, and won’t always have the quality of player that it does at the moment.  Indeed, as little as two years ago, they were pretty abject.  When the national team splutters, they’ll have little to fall back on.  While we have lambasted the IRFU and Kidney for a lack of vision, at least Irish rugby is founded on solid ground.  Even when the national team is rubbish, the problems are fixable, and the provinces have consistently provided an outlet during taxing periods.  In Wales, the edifice may be more impressive, but it all seems to be precariously balanced on Warren Gatland’s shoulders.

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20 Comments

  1. I sympathize with the regions themselves as organisations. They were up against it from the get-go. Welsh club rugby is infinitely stronger than it is here in Ireland, with clubs having built up ties to the community much like the GAA ones do here. To expect the fans to buy in to the idea of a region, thus standing under an umbrella with local rivals, was a massive ask. Here in Ireland we had four ready-made provinces complete with long-established identities, marketing was a piece of cake for us compared to Wales. Having said that, the WRU haven’t exactly broken their back to help establish the regions, opting instead to act more like a fifth region that competes with the others, and we all know who will win such a competition every time. Something will have to give, and from the feedback I’m getting I can see the regions being broken up at some point, and who knows what would happen to the Pro12 then?

  2. Amiga500

     /  November 6, 2012

    JL – by that logic the inter-county scene should be dead within the GAA.

    Part of the problem may be that the Pro12 is directly competing with the club leagues with regards fixture times. Eddie Butler made the point that the club games should all be moved to mid-week and the Pro12 held on the weekend, so the support base can get to both rather than have to choose between one or the other.

    • Stevo

       /  November 6, 2012

      “by that logic the inter-county scene should be dead within the GAA” – on the contrary, the inter-county scene in the GAA is more comparable with the traditional rugby scene here, with the club and representative competitions working alongside each other. The situation in Wales would be more like if a number of smaller counties were grouped together with their local rivals to compete against the bigger ones.

      • Amiga500

         /  November 6, 2012

        “The situation in Wales would be more like if a number of smaller counties were grouped together with their local rivals to compete against the bigger ones”

        How do you figure that?

        Welsh regions grouped to compete against Irish provinces and Scottish and Italian regions. Same as clubs are grouped into county teams to compete against other counties in football/hurling/camogie.

        Its not Welsh regions grouped to compete against Welsh clubs – although given stupid fixture scheduling by the WRU, they do end up directly competing for the same target audience, which no doubt has an influence on half empty stadia and not much embracement from the wider rugby support base.

  3. Some very good questions and I’ve been interested in it myself for a while without finding any satisfying answers. Reports I’ve heard suggest that Pontypridd, for example, have no time for Cardiff but are part of the same region – the appropriately named Blues. Conventional wisdom has it that the regions have never managed to acquire their own identity but from where I’m standing, the most successful Welsh region – the Ospreys – is the one most likely to suffer from schizophrenia as Neath and Swansea couldn’t stand each other. Also, the Welsh love playing the English and participate in the EDF Cup to this end. The EDF Cup is a quasi-development team competition but still gets good reasonable crowds. The English league’s H Cup TV proposal must have the Welsh clubs nervously squirming. They want as many Anglo fixtures as possible.
    As for Sam Warburton, something is suss to me. His level of performance osciallates way too much. Tipuric consistently hits at a level and I’d pick him for Wales. Robshaw has something of a “Tim Nice but Dim” persona on these shores but led England and Harlequins extremely well last season. If England gather pace during November then Robshaw’s stock will rise even further and the murmurings of Lions captaincy will emanate from Blighty.

    • Morton Slumber

       /  November 6, 2012

      Good point about Warburton Mole, it’ll be very interesting to see how he gets on in the AI’s.
      Cardiff management must be going nuts when his performances in the Blues jersey don’t match his international efforts.

  4. Ultra Sur

     /  November 7, 2012

    I view the Welsh Problem as on a par with the Anglo-French HEC shenanigans in terms of threat to Irish rugby.

    They’re an interesting case study – somewhere between the Irish and English methodologies. As you say, Team Wales works almost as a competitor for various reasons against its regions and the WRU fosters an identity in isolation. People who don’t identify with their assigned region (e.g. Pontypridd/Blues as Mole points out) support Team Wales, possibly a local club and that’s it. (We’re blessed in that regard to have readily identifiable provinces and a tradition of representation in nearly all our sports)

    The problem for us lies in a strong Pro 12. Without strong Welsh outfits, the Irish are going it alone in carrying the league and it will have no chance of winning the hearts and minds of the wider public. The WRU, one of the active partners, is not acting in the interests of the league at best through a domestic structure it seems happy to abdicate its responsibility to in order to finance the stadium debt and not incur further cash outflow. The regions, an ill-conceived idea at the outset, are drowning financially (and part of me suspects the WRU are playing a longer game in eventually taking them over completely once they’re down and out).

    This in turn is weakening our negotiating hand with regard to the HEC in a number of ways which I won’t bother developing but the main one being the fall out from the proposed league-based meritocracy. If that idea is allowed to gather traction, and the English and French are determined that it will, it won’t be long (I’d estimate exactly 7 years) before they are proposing to reduce its allocation further due to the weakness of the teams, the precursor being the Champions League format where weaker nations get less automatic entries. Even if we get 8 this time, next time it’ll be reduced further.

    I’ve said before on these pages that the main area of potential growth in rugby revenue in Ireland is the provinces, particularly in the league. This won’t happen if we have to carry the Welsh as well as the Scots/Italians – the league itself won’t grow any further. It is vitally important for us that Wales gets its house in order. 3 strong (Irish) teams is not enough to keep a 12 team league going and this will not stand us in good stead in Europe, both competitively and in terms of negotiation of rights/income.

  5. Rich

     /  November 7, 2012

    Strong and structured words alright. But worth remembering that Wales pumped us in the RWC in a shoreline that flattered us, and beat us on our home patch also. Refreshing that they have no issue bleeding young players and no doubt that their coach will pick form players, not afraid to drop Byrne/other seasoned pros. Clearly focus on the national team , different structure to us but at present – Are we in a better place? Their squad is fresh – ours in the 2009 squad without injuries

  6. On the Warburton issue, I thought the Leinster game was a particularly damning indictment of his ‘captaincy’ credentials. I would very much be off the opinion that if a player isn’t performing at their lowest level (PRO12 in his case) you can’t rely on them to perform at the higher levels. If you’re not doing your day job why would we trust you with something special (I’ve been reading Matthew Syed recently so this in particular hit home with me)? Conor O’Shea was fuming with him at half time on RTE’s. When one of the top coaches in Europe is questioning someones attitude on TV its pretty bad, but this is a supposed Lions captain candidate. If Warburton continues to get into the Welsh team ahead of Tipuric, it seems he’ll be there just for the captaincy which doesn’t say much for leadership within the Welsh group.

    On the wider Lions captaincy issue, it’s a strange one. None of the current national captains are currently nailed on Lions test starters and none of the likely test starters have serious captaincy credentials.

    • Anonymous

       /  November 7, 2012

      Could end up being Heaslip.

      [I think he is a better all-rounder than Faleteau and I think Gatland will remember how well he did last tour.]

      • Yeah, Heaslip did cross my mind. By the same token, Rory Best is just as likely a test starter as Heaslip and has national captaincy experience.

        I wonder if they’ll balk at a third Irish captaincy in succession though.

  7. Anonymous

     /  November 7, 2012

    More reading here folks:

    http://www.bbc.co.uk/sport/0/rugby-union/20218179

    It is an interesting conundrum. I see the report recommends the WRU purchase the regions – which they seemingly don’t want to do.

    I am not sure I understand the WRU mindset – do they see the regions as competitors to the national side? (rather than complementary?)

    • Ultra Sur

       /  November 7, 2012

      “However, this could lead to a requirement to treat the regions as subsidiary companies, which we we understand would not be acceptable to the WRU”

      Like what the hell are they after? Having their cake and eating it? The only chance of success in terms of domestic professional rugby is clearly the Irish model but they will not pursue it. It seems they’re going towards the Scottish model which will affect the national side’s access to players. It’s baffling.

  8. HolyGhost

     /  November 7, 2012

    Mole hit the nail on the head. The regions have no loyalty or solid fan base due to the composition of age old rivalries. Such as Cardiff/Pontypridd or Neath/Swansea. I went to a dinner function that Joe Schmidt was the guest speaker at. He told us that when Leinster go to Cardiff they use the same bus company and get the same bus driver, a chap called Roger. Roger is from Pontypridd and always tells the Leinster team to ‘kick the sh*t out of the Cardiff boys’. It’s only an anecdote but that’s the problem. Roger doesn’t care about the ‘Blues’ he cares about Pontypridd and Wales. He hates Cardiff and having to support a team like them doesn’t cut it for him.
    Stephen Jones put it neatly even if he is a muppet. Get rid of the silly names (Ospreys/Dragons/Blues). Return to the old ways and nominate one club as the Pro12 region and have the other club the direct ancillary that could compete in the EDF Anglo-Welsh cup. So a new Cardiff would play against Leinster, while Pontypridd would play against Leicester reserves in the EDF.

  9. Thanks for all the comments. It seems clear enough the regional setup, as it stands, is on its last legs – no-one is happy with it. If the next worst solution (whatever it is) becomes viable it will be back to the clubs.

    It’s hugely important for NH rugby – the Pro12 without the Ospreys would have been a glorified Irish interpro – and will continue to be. Everyone needs a competitive domestic rugby competition to feed upwards.

    Note also that the IRFU got majorly lucky that the provincial structure ready existed in 1995.

  10. toro toro

     /  November 8, 2012

    Apart from the local rivalries, though, the Regions have just been appallingly, ignorantly, marketed. I was really struck by this during Leinster’s recent visit to Parc y Scarlets. Llanelli RFC were playing against (I think) Glamorgan in the stadium following the H Cup game. The stadium was hardly heaving during the main game, but there was a reasonable crowd. But it was almost wholly empty for the second match, because stadium staff *kicked everybody out*, even from the bars around the ground, between the two games. Apart from tannoy exhortations to come along to the game afterwards – which would have involved finishing your drink, walking out, then paying back in – there was just no effort at all to sell the second game to supporters eager enough to come to the ground and watch their local team play rugby in the first place, or Leinster fans who would happily have spent the rest of a sunny afternoon filling the stadium bars’ tills and watching another match.

    The lumping together of local rivals does create problems, but beyond that the regions really don’t help themselves at all.

    • Rich

       /  November 9, 2012

      100% agree with the above – have encountered similar in Scotland, there is no link at all between the club game and the region, could be so easy to have 1 or 2 staff updating social media and getting people involved. Alas – there is just no money in the game anymore.

      Look at the Scottish borders, the “hot bed” of scottish rugby, but the border reivers went bust, their last games getting less than 1000 fans. The supporters are so bitter that they would rather see the franchise fail than be seen to pay money to go to galashiels stadium (seen as the Big club) to watch the game.

      When i first moved to Edinburgh i was told that Watsonians used to get over 2,000 people to a home game, now i d say they get 50, if that – Edinburgh not much better. Same as Wales – i would nt even say bad marketing as that would suggest some sort of marketing had been done.

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