The last few months have been somewhat of a soap opera regarding the Cardiff Blues, WRU and the murky world of National Dual Contracts. Leigh Halfpenny, Jamie Roberts, Tomas Francis and Gareth Anscombe have all played parts, along with the media, Toulon and the biggest performer in World Rugby, Mourad Boudjellal.
NDCs were brought in with the Rugby Services Agreement that signalled the end of the civil war, a WRU caveat to the negotiations brought in with the premise that they would lead to senior Team Wales players being retained by Welsh teams or brought home from England and France.
Of course that is one side to it, but it was this aspect of NDCs seen as most marketable rather than the fact that the WRU could hold the majority of a player’s contract and therefore dictate the number of games they played during a season, when they could play and even in what position they were to be used.
When they were introduced I think it’s fair to say there wasn’t exactly an outpouring of pleasantries towards the idea, with natural suspicion towards the WRU’s central control tendencies, but with Sam Warburton becoming the flagship NDC signing it perhaps eased initial fears.
However, since then the WRU have proved themselves as the nightmare governing body that they are, awarding NDCs to the likes of Dan Baker, Rhodri Jones, Tyler Morgan and Gareth Anscombe, players who aren’t even definite picks for wider Wales squads, let alone the test side, while failing to capture Taulupe Faletau and Luke Charteris who are nailed on starters under Gatland.
A test for the NDC system came this season as goal-kicking full-back Leigh Halfpenny’s contract at French side Toulon was up in May and the WRU were keen to bring him back to Wales as Gatland’s Law, and the amount of players playing abroad allowed in the national squad, started to bite.
Negotiations began well before Christmas and carried on right through to around the end of January, but there were always sticking points. Money was an issue, with Toulon offering somewhere around 750,ooo euros a season, as opposed to just £420,000 from the WRU/Cardiff Blues, however Halfpenny was prepared to ignore the big bucks and come home.
Then the contract length became a problem, with Leigh asking for a deal two and a half years in length, taking him to the end of the 2019 World Cup. The thinking behind this being he’d be 31 just after the tournament and at that point he could look to possibly going on a Super Rugby adventure.
The WRU were not happy with this though, wanting him to be in a position where he would renew his NDC just before the World Cup and therefore stay playing both club and international rugby in Wales into the next decade. Despite Cardiff offering to pay the last half year of the deal Halfpenny wanted, the powers that be refused to budge and as a result Leigh will now sign an extension to his Toulon deal.
Would the deal have been worth it? It depends which way you look at it. In terms of marketing then Halfpenny is big news, there’s no doubt his name would sell tickets and put sponsors in boxes. Playing-wise, well that’s where the unknown lies.
There’s no doubt that on his day Halfpenny is a world class operator, and his place kicking can win matches by itself, but he’s not on form at the moment, and there’s a bigger issue about NDC players. With them only being available for specific games around the international windows, they have to re-integrate into the squad each time they return.
As well as that, it’s not controversial to say that these players may not even play. For example, if Dan Fish was in excellent form, would he be dropped for a returning Leigh Halfpenny player? Look at the Scarlets, they left Rob Evans and Samson Lee on the bench for a trip to Toulon thanks to the form of Wyn Jones and Werner Kruger.
In a position where we in Cardiff are well stocked thanks to Fish, Blaine Scully, Matthew Morgan and the emerging Rhun Williams, it’s not the end of the world to miss out on Halfpenny, even if the fact that it’s the WRU who have blocked it rankles a bit.
Initially it seemed like a blessing in disguise that they had caused the negotiations to breakdown, with £480,000 being the last offer meaning in a simple world we now have £190,000 spare. Of course I’m aware that the NDC money is outside the wage cap, but looking at who is contracted for next season there does appear to be a cushion between the current wage bill and the limit.
Unfortunately the WRU seem hell bent on trying to now secure a different NDC signing for Cardiff, and not necessarily one that suits us. In The Rugby Paper on Sunday there was mention of Jamie Roberts returning to the Arms Park from Harlequins, although this has subsequently been denied by Wales Online’s Simon Thomas.
With Steve Shingler, Jack Roberts, Rey Lee-Lo, Willis Halaholo and Garyn Smith all on the books who can play centre, as well as a number of senior academy players, it wouldn’t make sense for Cardiff to pick up Doc on top of that when there are other positions that need strengthening first.
Add to that the fact it appears Roberts’ Wales career appears to be winding down now, as he has found himself on the bench throughout the Six Nations, it would be another questionably used NDC to add to the list.
In better news there have been also been reports from Wales Online that Tomas Francis has been targeted. Tighthead prop is a position we need strengthening, and Francis would be a welcome addition, but his transfer would throw up a different issue.
The Exeter player has recently triggered a clause in his contract that has seen him commit to play at Sandy Park until 2019. Therefore you’d imagine there would be a hefty fee to be paid to the English if Cardiff are to secure his services, and following the precedent set by Bradley Davies’ move to Ospreys, it would be us to pay the fee rather than the WRU or a joint venture.
When you consider that the WRU didn’t even want to pay the agent’s fees associated with Gareth Anscombe renewing his NDC with us, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see them try to avoid paying money wherever possible.
Would it be cost effective to fork out a transfer fee for Francis on top of his wages? Not if there was a nWq alternative who is available all season for a similar price, but if we have to use the money in an NDC then the tighthead is the best option in that is solves a weakness for us.
Overall it feels like the NDC system isn’t particularly working out for us. However, with Anscombe’s renewal due to be announced at any time, and if the move for Francis did materialise, then I could warm to it slightly. All we can hope in the meantime is that the Cardiff Blues management really fight the corner of the club, and don’t just fold to the self-benefitting demands of the Union.