Sunday, 2 June 2013

Rugby at risk of selling its soul?

The British and Irish Lions kicked off their 2013 Tour with a comfortable win over the Barbarians in sweltering conditions at the Hong Kong Stadium.

The scoreline shows that it was a victory for the men in red but was it really a victory for rugby and the very tradition that the Lions uphold? With tickets priced £63-109, it is hardly surprising that in the first ever Lions match in Asia - an expanding market for rugby - the stadium was half empty.
The Lions are a marketers' dream which was clear to see even in what was just the opening game. Everything that could be sponsored is, from the comical HSBC adverts Sky has bombarded us with (Gatland dressed as a sea captain: you've got to feel he’s going to regret that one day!), to Microsoft sponsoring the scoreboard.
Pundits such as Phil Steel pointed out on twitter that the match in Hong Kong was about as useful to helping the Lions acclimatise to Australian conditions as a ‘sparrowhawk with a squint’.
The safety of the players was also called into question with the temperatures and humidity reaching dangerous levels during the week to play and train in, with the IRB guidelines recommending games should not be played in temperatures over 30C or above 60% humidity.
With over 40,000 Lions supporters descending on Oz, a warm up game wasn't required in Asia and you only have to look at the crowd in the stadium to realise that perhaps the appetite from the die hard fans simply wasn’t there. In fact, there was probably a better atmosphere in the dentist’s waiting room I had the misfortune of sitting in last week...
It’s not just the Lions who are subject to being exploited, the WRU announced this week that Team Wales would be playing a fourth International against Australia on November 30th. On paper, it doesn’t look that bad: testing ourselves against a Southern Hemisphere side and a chance to avenge our consistent heartbreaking losing streak against them.
However, if you dig a little deeper, this International will come just a week before a vital round of the Heineken Cup for the Welsh regions and is also outside the IRB window, meaning that French and English based players will be unavailable. On top of this, the fixture will be Wales’ seventh match against the ‘Qantas Wallabies’ since the world cup - an insane amount that cries overkill.
Yes, the game in Wales needs money and the Autumn Internationals are a great revenue spinner, but at what cost will it come to the already battered and bruised Welsh bodies, and to what detriment will it be to the regions who are already struggling to compete with the top sides in Europe? If the money from these matches was actually invested in the regional sides it would be something, but I can see it once again being extraneously used on paying off the debt for the construction of the Millennium Stadium instead of anything rewarding. While a financially sound WRU is something we all want, this may be too high a price to pay.
With the regions once again set to lose their International stars for crucial periods of the season, is it any wonder that they are offloading the likes of George North and Jamie Roberts, cases that arm the WRU with the rationale behind their central contracts debate.
In my humble opinion, central contracts are not the answer but Wales must be strong and tell players that if they play outside Wales they will not feature in the national side. Obviously this would mean that around half of our current starting XV would be ruled out, but it may deter players from hopping over the border via the Severn Bridge.
The WRU’s contempt for regional supporters was also compounded this week when a request from the four regional supporters clubs to meet with the WRU was denied. Does Roger Lewis really not care about the supporters', who prop up Welsh rugby week in week out, feelings and opinions?
As the Cardiff Blues Supporters Club twitter account surmised, ‘Without supporters to "support" as well as to be involved in the grassroots and community game, what does the future hold?’
It certainly is a worrying question to consider at a time when the top tier of rugby in Wales (national side) is continually supported to the detriment of everything else in the game, producing a top heavy structure that will eventually crumble from the ground up.
Rugby is the national sport of Wales but when you look at it compared to football in terms of player participation and support of Wales’ now two premier league teams, the WRU and regions need to think and act fast, or an entire generation of fans may well be lost to the round ball.
I was at the Hay Festival last week and went to a talk on Welsh rugby featuring Owen Sheers (WRU’s writer in residence), Carolyn Hitt (Western Mail columnist and author of Wales Play in Red) and Jasper Rees (author or Bred of Heaven) and while the discussion was interesting and engaging, the focus was primarily on Team Wales and little was dedicated to the grassroots and club side of the game in what I feel is ultimately the life blood of the game in Wales.
The success of Team Wales has been to the detriment in my mind of every other level of rugby in Wales. The 30-3 annihilation of England, despite how sweet a victory it was, only papers over the cracks left by the dismal performance of the regional sides this year and how four grassroots sides effectively ceased to exist due to dwindling numbers. (Markham, Tredegar Ironsides, Aberavon Naval, St Josephs (Newport))
Ultimately, the problem and solution lies with money and the lack of it at all levels, from Wales’ national side down. As long as this disparity continues between the WRU and the regions, then they will both continue to undermine each other and we could be plunged back into the wilderness of the 90’s.

So what do you guys think is the solution for rugby in Wales? Do you agree with central contracts? How can the regions be made more sustainable in your opinion? Has rugby at the highest level sold its soul to its corporate sponsors? Finally, what can be done to stop the death of the game at grassroots level?


  1. Continuing the football comparison, will the Regions branch off to look after themselves, as the giants of the English football game did in the early 1990s to form the Premier League?

    If this happens, will the WRU lose a lot of control financially as the FA did over the top table when that league was formed?

    And if this was to happen in Wales, would it be a bad thing? Would more independent Regions be able to finance themselves more easily and keep their stars, or would it be in their best interests to stick with the WRU and work together? I am sure the structure throughout Wales would be better served with the latter.

    It's a strange conundrum. And this is unfortunately something which has rumbled on for years. Why has it not been solved yet? Is it as easy as we make out?

    I think this comment sums up the whole debate - so many questions with very few answers!