The Welsh rugby season begins on Friday night, but it’s been another summer of re-shaping, re-hashing and re-heating the menu on offer. Geraint Powell says the Principality Premiership has been squeezed, but the clubs do have a showcase opportunity which they must seize.
It’s not easy being a Welsh Rugby Union senior executive.
We can all complain about the state of the flawed professional regional game – the underlying root cause of nearly all of the problems in the whole pyramid – but, if a majority of the policy-making WRU board is not prepared to spend big to properly reorganise the tier once and for all, we are where we are.
If you don’t set-up a uniform simple tier structure at the outset, and if you avoid taking difficult decisions to rectify the flaws, then more and more complexity will incrementally be added to get around problems every time a new problem manifests itself.
There is an awful lot of needless complexity, after 23 years of professionalism and 15 years of poorly implemented regionalism.
The introduction of regional ‘A’ or U23 or development – it really does depend upon who you are speaking with – teams was never going to be well received in the semi-pro club game.
There has never been universal respect for the regional academy and age grade structures; the perceived unevenness in quality both within and between them has not helped.
We know that the WRU Premiership semi-pro clubs, with one exception – the North Wales development region now left somewhat in limbo – the modern equivalent of the pre-1990 so-called ‘1st class’ clubs, have not been happy for some time.
Having suffered past downgrades, each of which has seen reduced crowds, “downgrading” out of decline as a means of renewing the aging fan base is not a favoured option. Even to be rid of the hassle of meddling from the regional game.
Those driving resource concentration through regional or provincial rugby in 2003 were very much using the New Zealand template, with the historic WRU Premiership clubs to essentially serve as the Welsh equivalent of the historic NZ provinces.
The tier accepted this template, and their ‘stepping stone’ role within it, to the extent that the clubs disbanded their age grade structures to avoid competition with the amateur/shamateur grassroots game beneath it.
But subsequent WRU regimes have increasingly been attracted to the Irish model, especially the regime of former WRU chief executive Roger Lewis, a process now accelerated by matches against the ‘A’ teams of the Irish provinces by equivalent Welsh structures and teams.
We know that the semi-pro club game has felt squeezed both from above by the regions and below from the grassroots clubs, without its own WRU sub-board and/or main board representative.
If the WRU Premiership falls within any high performance sub-board, it will be an afterthought behind the regions and the governing body’s greater financial exposure to the regional game.
If the WRU Premiership falls within any grassroots club sub-board, it will be outvoted and swamped by the different concerns of the 300+ clubs below.
The only way the latter option would succeed is if the sub-board representatives, overwhelmingly elected by the grassroots clubs, undesirably prioritised their more glamorous WRU Premiership work, to the detriment of their own clubs.
We have the seemingly intractable problem of some historic club heritage being misdirected into the regional game, both offending deeply held Welsh egalitarian sensibilities and diluting several club identities to the commercial detriment of the WRU Premiership as a whole.
Any splitting of the regional pathway, and many can appreciate why the WRU decided that splitting was far easier than compelling its proper intended use, was going to create problems – whether “cliff edge”, with an immediate full-season ‘A’ fixture list, or building-up gradually over several seasons.
There are inevitably so many loose ends in the current landscape.
That is unavoidable, short of a massive repair job upon the regional tier well beyond the ambition and scope of “Project Reset”.
One of the few certainties in Welsh regional rugby is that regional ‘A’ teams will not pay for themselves, however many or few matches they play. They are currently, and will be for the foreseeable future even if a soccer reserve team attitude does not creep in, a commercial vacuum.
If you take pathway obligations away from the WRU Premiership, completely or heavily, you will also inevitably reduce the funding of it.
In Welsh rugby always follow the power, the control and especially the money.
WRU Premiership clubs, not unreasonably, point to the amount of time, effort and money they have already spent over many seasons in complying with WRU criteria that will now become obsolete.
Reducing the WRU Premiership from 16 clubs to 12 clubs concurrently with essentially splitting the pathway is not great timing, for the primary argument in favour of reducing the league’s size has always been resource-concentrating player talent in order to serve the pathway.
Many WRU Premiership stakeholders are content with a 16 club double ‘round robin’ format of 15 home 15 away league matches, with one club being relegated annually.
Basically, it’s the modern equivalent of the Western Mail informally recording the percentages of the then 18 so-called ‘1st class’ clubs over the course of a season before 1990.
So what BBC Wales will be televising on a Friday evening in 2018-19, apart from the mass relegation, is what many WRU Premiership stakeholders have wanted all along.
The question of whether any WRU Premiership clubs play the controversial new club run Agenda 3 Super 5 Scottish semi-pro franchises in 2019-20 should be a matter for the WRU Premiership to collectively decide. I would urge caution.
Weekend trips to Melrose, Stirling and Ayr are unlikely to dampen down player payment expectations, in a league ideally long requiring player wage restraint; as part of wider financial fair play provisions but for the insurmountable policing and enforcement obstacles.
Glasgow/Edinburgh ‘A’ teams joining the Celtic Cup would be a better cross-border alignment with the Welsh rugby pyramid.
But, for all these complications and loose ends, this is a league that has a one-off golden opportunity and all the current negative publicity simply has to end.
The regions are leaving BBC Wales on a Friday evening, with S4C on a Saturday evening confined to a Welsh language commentary, as they seek additional income. The Premier Sports free-to-air rugby offering, on sister channel FreeSports, is not targeting the Welsh market.
BBC Wales have instead agreed, for 2018-19 only, to televise one of the eight weekly league matches on a Friday evening. With some additional matches on S4C.
This is a one-off opportunity to promote the league, after 15 years of commercial neglect/suppression, with a consistent weekly exposure rather than the occasional match which does little other than to suppress that match attendance.
Yes, all club rugby TV rights are currently bundled within the Welsh team broadcast contract, but that unbundling can be done upon renewal.
2018-19 is the season for the WRU Premiership to convince BBC Wales that it is an offering worthy of the not inexpensive outside broadcasting costs. If/when that hurdle is crossed, the commercial growth leading to the payment of TV rights can begin. But walk before trying to run.
The WRU have already indicated that a commercial executive for the WRU Premiership is to be appointed, and not before time.
So, whilst there may be much for the WRU and the WRU Premiership teams to vigorously debate in private in relation to WRU funding, tier governance and representation, commercial autonomy, business sustainability (‘soft’ and ‘hard’ caps), league composition and format, cross-border competition (if any), regional rugby integration/alignment including the residual limited regional pathway role, I would urge all stakeholders not to lose sight of the bigger commercial picture.
The priority for the WRU Premiership in 2018-19 is to convert BBC Wales from a tentative triallist into a long-term commercial partner.
Given that – some would argue – BBC Wales have spent the last 15 years ignoring semi-pro club rugby, there must be some within the BBC who will be sceptical about the viewer pull of this league and in need of serious convincing. This is not “all publicity is good publicity” territory.
A weekly match, with an accompanying weekly highlights programme, is the easiest way to place the historic club rivalries back at the centre of Welsh rugby culture.
Bar none, so no more self-inflicted wounds, please.
Welsh rugby has inflicted far too many of them since the flawed 1990 changes.
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