Over the last few days there has been a lot of focus across social media about the future of the Principality Premiership amid what are perceived to be attacks on it’s standard as part of the re-shuffle of the development pathway in Wales.
The independent review commissioned by the Welsh Rugby Union last season involved a number of recommendations for changes to be made below the professional regional level, many of which have been implemented as new development teams prepare to play in the Celtic Cup, and the Premiership is cut from 16 to 12 teams.
These were generally well received within the world of Welsh rugby, accepted as inevitable for some time, but this weekend a storm has been created by Merthyr RFC’s Chief Executive Nigel Davies who has bemoaned the situation in an interview with Steffan Thomas that appeared in The Rugby Paper and on WalesOnline.
The main point that has been seized on is his rejection of the idea that the Premiership is not fit for purpose in having a role developing young players coming through the pathway. Essentially, he’s not happy about the clubs receiving less money as they are now separating from the professional game.
He makes some generally fair points, though, expressing concern over what happens to the four, maybe five, teams that will drop from the Premiership to the Championship next summer and suffer a funding cut of around £84,000, but contradicts himself by bemoaning how the Championship teams get more money when there is a significant gap between the first and second tier of club rugby in Wales.
The cynic in me suggests that Davies is just concerned that the well-funded setup at Merthyr RFC, in which he has a full-time role, faces turning more obviously semi-professional, or even amateur, in the not-so-distant future and the former Wales captain is concerned for his job.
However, let’s look at the area of Davies’ interview which has caused the biggest storm on Twitter and in the bizarre world of WalesOnline’s Andy Howell, whether the Premiership is fit for purpose or not.
His main argument in this area was to state that “every Welsh player who has been based in Wales who has gone on to play regional and international rugby has come through the Premiership.” On this, he is correct, but that in itself does not make the Premiership a functioning development vehicle.
If someone makes it to university after coming through a poorly performing comprehensive school, is the school suddenly a good development vehicle? Or is it somewhere the person has to attend and they’ve made it to university due to being naturally intelligent?
Players coming through the system in Wales have had to play in the Premiership up until now as it was the only stepping stone between age grade rugby and the Pro14, especially before the Anglo-Welsh Cup took on a development role in 2010, and it has done the job asked of it in giving young players game time.
However, if we don’t try to improve the pathway, the Welsh game will stand still.
The professional level of rugby union has evolved massively even in the last few years, with money ploughing into the French and English games, while the Scottish and Irish Unions put a lot of money into their top tier teams at the detriment to the community game.
Wales, with it’s much fewer resources than the other Northern Hemisphere countries, has to look for any sort of advantage we can to keep up with our neighbours, therefore trying to develop high quality players from within is the most efficient and cost effective way to improve both the professional teams and the national team.
Davies was very dismissive of the new Celtic Cup competition involving Welsh and Irish development sides, and it seemed as if the interview was done before the full details of that came out, but on paper it offers a great opportunity for young players, coaches and referees to test themselves in a professional and competitive environment, before going into national age grade setups or hopefully the Pro14 matchday squads later in the season.
The main criticism of this on social media has been the lack of game time against ‘experience’, but there’ll be plenty of fringe first teamers involved in the Celtic Cup and, secondly, I was at Rodney Parade last season when Rhys Carre and Dillon Lewis tore two experienced Premiership props to shreds for Cardiff RFC.
It feels like Davies’ self-pity has been used as a vehicle for Andy Howell to secure some clicks, and for those involved in Welsh rugby who hold some sort of grudge against the professional game, to beat regional rugby with another stick of their own creation, when in fact they are only shooting their own league in the foot.
This coming season could be the start of something very exciting for the Premiership, as it enters a new era where it will become free of development responsibility and can begin to market itself as a truly competitive league at the top of the Welsh domestic rugby pyramid.
The jeopardy of relegation, the race for the league title and vastly improved television coverage should all be ramping up to create a highly anticipated Principality Premiership season that is judged on it’s own merits, not permanently scrutinised as a development league and compared to the Pro14.
Instead, with the campaign starting in just over a week, the coverage is almost entirely focused on what Howell has built up to be a ‘major row’.
It’s time for those involved in the Premiership to take pride in their competition.