How do you solve a problem like the pathway?

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Another week, another discussion over the viability of Welsh rugby’s Regional Development Pathway as sides representing the for professional teams fell to further heavy defeats.

I have written about issues at a certain step of the pathway before, looking at last season’s Anglo-Welsh and British and Irish Cup performances, and questioning this season’s BIC squad, but now the focus has shifted more towards the Anglo-Welsh Cup itself.

This past weekend has seen the four teams of this side of the Severn Bridge begin their competition fixtures, after the English sides played their first round games last week due to the differences in scheduling between the Aviva Premiership and Guinness Pro14.

The results saw an aggregate score of England 174-19 Wales, a quite startling statistic that should send shockwaves through the rugby development departments of Welsh professional teams and the Welsh Rugby Union.

George Earle Newcastle
George Earle takes on Newcastle for Cardiff Blues

 

Reactions ranged from accusing the English sides of ignoring the developmental nature of the competition, to accusing the Welsh sides of disrespecting their jerseys and the competition, as well as the usual howls of affinity and regionalism being the answer to all failures.

In truth the answer to the issue is quite simple, align the competition between the countries, or scrap it altogether.

Focusing on the Cardiff Blues heavy 57-0 defeat to Newcastle in the North-East on Saturday evening, we were facing a side that was preparing to make the daunting trip to Wasps as the Premiership got back underway next week.

With that in mind they had named a 23-man squad that contained 11 players who featured in their last Premiership matchday squad, as well as Fijian international Josh Matavesi and Argentinian international Belisario Agulla.

tom-oflaherty-ospreys
Tom O’Flaherty scores for Ospreys in the AW at CAP last season

 

This makes a change from their round one Anglo-Welsh encounter where they had changed their entire starting XV from the previous week’s Premiership fixture, using five academy players and a number of fringe homegrown players. Just the three international, as opposed to eight.

There was also a change in coaching staff as regular head coach Dave Walder came back in, replacing the academy management trio of James Ponton, Scott MacLeod and Mark Laycock. A clear and obvious shift from the #NewHeroes mantra of the Anglo-Welsh Cup, to a thinly veiled #PremiershipWarmUp match.

Now I’m not trying to divert attention from the fact that Cardiff took an absolute hammering at Kingston Park on Saturday. The team we sent up should have had enough about it to at least get on the scoresheet, and conceding 57 points in an hour is not acceptable at any level of professional sport.

However, a team where only seven players were over the age of 25 were always on a hiding to nothing against a opposition line-up that I have no hesitation in saying could easily be seen at a Premiership fixture.

anglo-welsh-cup
Old Rivals, Old Heroes?

 

The second point to make though, is that criticising the English sides for sending out sides more recognisable as first teams may turn out to be somewhat hypocritical, if the Welsh sides do as they should and they themselves bring back a few more senior players ahead of a return to Pro14 action after this weekend.

In Cardiff there’s an expectation Gareth Anscombe will return to fitness, while the likes of Willis Halaholo, Tomos Williams, Olly Robinson, Macauley Cook and Josh Turnbull all with a shout of being included.

If a side containing some of those names was taken to Newcastle then the result would be somewhat different, or so you’d like to think anyway. This is why the two countries need to fall into line, or it’s largely pointless continuing with the Anglo-Welsh Cup.

Either have an agreement whereby the first week is for development and the second for preparing for league action, impose strict rules upon the ages of the players involved, i.e an under-23 competition with a set number of overage players, make it fully competitive, or cancel the cup altogether.

Zebre Gareth Anscombe
Gareth Anscombe could return to action on Friday

 

With the British and Irish Cup now being scrapped this may well be the optimum time to revolutionise the ever-widening step of the pathway between the semi-professional Welsh Premiership and the professional ranks of the Guinness Pro14.

The options? Well there is any number of ways the WRU can look to bridge that gap, and there are a lot of difficult decisions to be made along the way, but the biggest one of all is whether to split the professional game from the Welsh domestic scene, or keep it all as one pathway.

Maintaining a development pathway that includes the Premiership is to continue to fund a competition that still does not know what it is. The WRU stress it is a development league, yet looking at some of the names, and ages of those names, offered contracts, it certainly makes you wonder if it is contributing to the bigger picture.

If the Premiership can get it’s house in order in terms of ensuring it is a vehicle for development, not for individual success, then by all means include it in the pathway. Players can come out of college and international age grade systems to spend a season playing at the highest Welsh domestic level, before graduating to the next level.

Cardiff Blues pre-season
Young players need a standard of rugby to prepare them for the Pro14

 

That subsequent higher step on the pathway could come in the form of either a reformed Anglo-Welsh Cup, with it’s focus on development, or a new round-robin type competition where the four regions play each other home and away across the six weeks the Anglo-Welsh tournament is currently played.

However, my personal preference is to split the Premiership from the pathway. That isn’t an attack on the Premiership at all, far from it, as a fan of Cardiff RFC I want to see a competitive league and I think this is the best way to do it.

Taking away development responsibilities allows the Premiership clubs to focus on themselves, being as competitive as they can be independently and creating an exciting standalone league separate to the Pro14.

Some or all of the funding can then be diverted to the rugby departments of the four professional sides, earmarked for development, and going towards players in the 18-23 age range for the purpose of having dedicated A teams playing either in the Aviva A League with the English sides, or a newly formed competition with the four Welsh A teams, the four Irish A teams and potentially the Scottish rugby academies.

British and Irish Cup
The British and Irish Cup is no more

 

It wouldn’t be a popular decision in all quarters, but nothing ever is in Welsh rugby, and I can’t see the WRU implementing it anyway, but it’s worth considering that the time is approaching for difficult decisions to be taken on the future direction of the pathway.

Until then though, there’s more Anglo-Welsh Cup action on Friday as we welcome Ospreys to the Arms Park. Pointless ‘development’ competition or not, I kind of want to win. Come on Cardiff!!

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