This week the WRU Board ratified proposals brought by the Competitions Pathway Working Group to revolutionise the top level of club rugby in Wales. The main points being the expansion of the Welsh Premiership from 12 to 16 teams from 2016/17, and the introduction of ‘Premiership Select XVs’ representing Wales in the British and Irish Cup, and potentially the LV Anglo-Welsh Cup.
Despite some strong opposition from Pontypridd RFC, and less so from Cross Keys RFC, the proposals have finally been confirmed, and I think the vast majority involved with Welsh rugby can see it is an improvement to the current system.
Starting with the changes to the Welsh Premiership, only briefly because they don’t particularly effect Cardiff massively. The expansion of teams will provide a bit more competition, especially with the introduction of the ambitious Pontypool, RGC bringing a North Walian presence and Merthyr adding the money and glamour, if there can be glamour in the Welsh Premiership. The Merthyr factor is the main reason I’m even mentioning the Welsh Premiership in this blog, as the money Sir Stanley Thomas, brother of Peter, is putting into the Valleys side means they could well become a force in the top division of Welsh rugby by the 2016/17 season. Sir Stan has already stated his desire for Merthyr to become a third feeder team for the Blues, alongside the Blue and Blacks and Pontypridd, after being quoted saying how he feels Ponty have treated Cardiff poorly since the demise of the Celtic Warriors, “I am hoping if we get competitive and are able to play against Ponty, their attitude to regional rugby may change. Cardiff Blues give them a number of players and then you get all this disrespect in the papers.” Therefore a promotion of Merthyr to the top division could either see Ponty admitting their reliance on the Blues at last, or an ending, or at least a decrease, of the level of playing and coaching aid heading to Sardis Road.
Anyway, onto the really big news, and a piece of news that has consumed anybody even remotely interested in Welsh rugby ever since this off-season period began, how will Wales be represented in the British and Irish Cup next season? Well we now know that there will be four Premiership Select XVs, so for Cardiff it’ll be the snappily named Cardiff Blues Premiership Select XV.
The whole story started a few months ago at the Pontypridd AGM when Ponty CEO Stephen Reardon made public an e-mail from Cardiff CEO Richard Holland advising him about the WRU pathway working group’s decision to put A teams of the pro clubs into the BIC. The decision was welcomed by all at the pro club level, and accepted in large parts of the Welsh Premiership scene, however, the Sardis Road faithful were not happy, it is fair to say.
The ‘No Way Regional A’ campaign, if you can call it that, started and ended in a somewhat tepid manner with about 50 Ponty fans (5,000 in Valleys currency) holding up a few banners. It is mainly for this reason the blog will be referring to the new Premiership Select team as Cardiff Blues A. This reason, and also because it’s essentially what the new team is anyway.
The new A side will be formed mainly of the academy players who feature regularly at Premiership level, possibly some fringe senior players, and then made up of the top Premiership semi-pros. It is highly unlikely any first-teamers will feature, unless they require match fitness, especially if the WRU are successful in moving British and Irish Cup games to European weekends. The coaching teams will be made up of a mix of the Premiership and Pro side coaches, so I’d expect Paul John to have a role, possibly Andy Kyriacou who took charge of the LV Cup side last season, and maybe even a Mr McIntosh, although I for one hope not.
It’d be good to see the likes of Kyriacou get a chance, as well as the top tier academy players, especially as the gap between the Premiership and Pro12 widens by the year, a prime example being the failure of the likes of Chris Dicomidies, Geraint Walsh, Simon Humberstone and Adam Thomas, in their step up from Ponty to Cardiff during Paul John and Chief’s ‘jobs for the boys’ regime.
It is for this reason I firmly believe the A sides will be a success in the long run, and will grow in stature as time goes on and fixtures increase. Ponty’s disappointment at not having the chance to compete themselves in the BIC is understandable to an extent, however it is important to remember that it is not an entitlement for Pontypridd to compete in the BIC, just like it isn’t for them to become a fifth pro team. The sooner Sardis Road realises they are a part of the wider Welsh rugby jigsaw which places them below the Blues, the better for them and us.