The big kick-off to the new rugby season is not far away, but there is still confusion as to where parts of the Welsh jig-saw fit into place. The new Celtic Cup will operate over the opening two months of the season, but to what effect? Meanwhile, in the soon to be downgraded Principality Premiership, some of the biggest names in rugby will be fighting for their very survival as David Williams discovers.
If you ask the four Welsh regions what they are going to call their new teams that will be playing in the Celtic Cup this season you will get differing answers. For some they will be Under 23 sides, others are calling them A teams.
Seven successive weekends of ‘development’ rugby are in store for the brightest young prospects in the Welsh game as they dip their toe into the professional sport.
It is going to be a tough ask against the well-established Irish provincial A teams, but it will also be very demanding on the regions as well.
The second strings will be playing on the same weekends as the Guinness Pro14 teams, meaning each of the four regions will need a minimum of 50 fit players (2 x 23 for a match-day squad plus two travelling reserves for each side) for each of those weekends.
Factor in injured players and it means that for the first two months of the season the regions are going to need somewhere near 70 players on their books to fulfil their fixtures.
At the same time, there will be a full roster of Principality Premiership fixtures going on, making it difficult for the regions to dip down to find reinforcements if required.
While the youngsters battle it out to impress their coaches in the Celtic Cup, the 16 teams in the Premiership will be involved in something altogether more serious.
With the league being cut to 12 at the end of the season, and the WRU cutting funding to each of those dozen as well, many of Welsh rugby’s historic clubs have been warned they face the prospect of falling out of existence.
With up to five teams are set to get relegated from the division in May, world renowned clubs like Neath, Newport, Swansea, Bridgend and Llanelli face the worrying prospect of dropping down yet another tier to the Championship.
Any club relegated from the Premiership will see their Welsh Rugby Union funding slashed from a maximum of £100,000 this season to £16,000 for the 2019-20 campaign.
The WRU are then slashing their contribution to Premiership clubs to £40,000 pa within the next few years.
Former Wales coach Nigel Davies – who has coached at regional and Premiership level in Wales and who is now the chief executive of current Premiership and WRU National Cup champions Merthyr – is representing the Premiership clubs in working with the WRU and quite rightly fears for their future.
“There is a real danger some of the big identities in Wales are just going to disappear. If the clubs go out of the league they will have far less funding,” said Davies.
“A lot of them have no junior sections – many were told by the WRU they had to disband their youth teams when regional rugby came into being – to fall back on and that means their revenue streams will be shot to bits.
“The reality is that big name clubs will potentially disappear if we carry on along this road and the sides who are relegated will be in significant trouble. We’ve got some fantastic clubs with very proud histories, but we are in serious danger of losing some of them.
“Clubs need a high level of coaching, they need management and medical teams, physios and doctors and we’ve all got to maintain our pitches and floodlights to a high level – even strapping for players can cost up to £10,000 each year!
“The money from the WRU simply isn’t enough. It costs about £120,000 per season just to get the right resources in place to meet their criteria before you play a game.”
The new 12-team Premiership will be lumped into the community game from the 2019/20 season once the Union’s re-vamp of the governance of the game is completed.
There is widespread concern, and no little confusion, among the Premiership clubs as to where they will fit into the grand scheme of Welsh rugby going forward.
“There is a lack of clarity around the role of the Premiership and there have been many conflicting messages coming from the WRU. We just don’t feel we’ve been properly listened to or consulted with,” added Davies.
“On the one hand the WRU have publicly stated the Premiership is all about finding the best club team in Wales and will no longer play a role in helping develop young professional talent. In our eyes this is a gross contradiction
“When you examine the reality of the situation, it is obvious the Premiership will still very much be used as a development pathway for developing professional players given many regions have already allocated their players to teams in their area.
“As well as many of the great club names being under threat, what happens in the future to RGC1404? The north Wales experiment has worked well in recent years, but will they continue to get hundreds of thousands of pounds pumped into them by the Union?
“The WRU are also asking the Premiership clubs to play in a cross-border competition with the new Scottish Super 6 clubs. Why is this when their current philosophy and funding means we won’t have semi-pro clubs within two seasons?”
There are no grumbles from the Premiership clubs about the introduction of the Celtic Cup, even if it has more or less relegated their tournament to the third tier of the domestic game in Wales.
The WRU view is that the seven-match long Celtic Cup will better prepare players, coaches and referees for the rigours of the professional game.
But Davies firmly believes in the clear and proven pathway that the Premiership has provided, rather than the regional academies. This route for many players to go on to play professionally should be maintained.
The downgrading of the Premiership means this system could break with catastrophic consequences for the game below the professional level.
“I’m not sure what the WRU is doing is right,” said Davies, who feels young talent would be better off playing in a properly funded Premiership.
“The regions are carrying big squads now to cater for the Under-23 sides. A lot of players think they will be good enough to play professional rugby, but they never will.
“Some of these boys are being paid a pittance – it’s not even enough money to cover their food. It’s almost changed the course of their lives because some of them may have been going to college or be in work and they’ve pulled back from that to give themselves an opportunity in rugby.
“The Premiership has been instrumental in producing good Welsh coaches. Where are those coaches going to be developed in the future?
“It’s not going to be in an Under-23 competition which comprises of seven weeks of pretty meaningless rugby that is all over in October. Coaches only develop under pressure and the Premiership provides that throughout the season.
“There are a lot of people who comment on the Premiership who don’t know the facts. Virtually every Welsh player who has been based in Wales who has gone on to play regional and international rugby has come through the Premiership – it is a real stepping stone.
“In making the Premiership less relevant there will be less people involved in the game from players and coaches, to committee and supporters.
“In my view this will accelerate the nightmare scenario of the game only being played in schools, colleges and professional entities in the future.”
The Premiership kicks-off on 1 September and this season BBC Wales will be televising one game per week on a Friday night.
Principality Premiership – Round 1
Aberavon v Swansea
Bargoed v Llandovery
Bedwas v Pontypridd
Cardiff v Merthyr
Carmarthen Quins v Newport
Cross Keys v Bridgend
Llanelli v Ebbw Vale
RGC 1404 v Neath
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