With Six Nations fever still a week away from properly gripping hold of the rugby mad nation we live in for two months of the year, this week’s discussion and click driver in Welsh rugby has been the regions and their performance in Europe.
Last weekend saw the participation of the Dragons, Cardiff Blues, Ospreys and Scarlets in the Heineken Champions Cup come to an end with none advancing to the knockout rounds, which in the top tier competition was filled with three Irish and two Scottish sides from the Guinness Pro14.
As a result the sort of ‘faux outrage’, if you like, also known as another excuse to beat the regions with a stick, has been our performance levels in European competition with many having seemingly unrealistic ideas of what the Welsh sides should be capable of.
I’ve braved a flick through of the dark corners of Twitter, comment sections on WalesOnline and Facebook entries to see what the fantasy world thinks we must be achieving, and it is certainly interesting!
It is an embarrassment
Is it really though? Let’s look at the plight of each individual region starting with ourselves, Cardiff Blues, on our return to the Heineken Cup after five years away.
The performance at the Arms Park against Glasgow Warriors was a real disappointment, however we earned respect with two big performances against Gallagher Premiership champions Saracens, during which we suffered a mini-injury crisis, before scoring eight tries across rounds five and six of the pool stage.
Scarlets were also in the top tier competition and had disappointing moments just like ourselves, but they weren’t just dealing with a mini-injury crisis, it was a full blown major incident at times, and they finished on a high with a win over Leicester and valiant showing at Racing 92.
Ospreys? Well they weren’t interested in the Challenge Cup from the start and made it very clear, while Dragons were handed pool opponents in the shape of Northampton and Clermont who would not have looked out of place in the Heineken Cup. A brave performance away in France something to nod at.
Sure it would have been good to make the knockout stages, but you can hardly accuse Cardiff Blues and Scarlets of making up the numbers.
But, but, but Scarlets got to the semi-final and Cardiff Blues won the Challenge Cup last season
It’s a fair point that we fared better in European competition last season, however that should not be seen as the norm and is in fact the anomaly over the years, rather than this season’s failure to advance beyond the pool stages.
Scarlets punched well above their weight to make the last four and interestingly, when asked about the difference between last season and this at a recent Q&A event with supporters, their chairman Nigel Short’s first remark was ‘I’ve never known a season where we’ve had as few injuries’ when talking about 2017/18.
Similarly Cardiff Blues were lucky to have the majority of first teamers fit and healthy throughout the second half of the last campaign as we rode a wave of momentum to Bilbao.
We need better team spirit
This, rather worryingly, was actually a point raised by respected rugby journalist Peter Jackson on the BBC’s Wales Today evening news on Monday, when asked about the Welsh regions performance in Europe.
Of course it’s just making a point for the sake of being sensationalist, and I’d challenge Mr Jackson to go into the Cardiff Blues dressing room after going toe-to-toe with Saracens over 160 minutes in December and tell them they lack team spirit, but it links to a wider issue with the understanding of Welsh rugby’s professional problems.
We need better coaches, more squad depth, to challenge with the Scottish etc
That wider issue, and indeed the route of most problems within Welsh regional rugby is….money!
How do we get better coaches? Money
How do we get more depth? Money
How do we compete with the Scottish sides? Money
When you look at the playing budgets of all 20 sides in this season’s Heineken Cup there are two times propping up the rest and they are Scarlets in 19th and Cardiff Blues in 20th. The simple truth of the matter is that we will always be punching above our weight if we are to be even close to competitive in European competition.
At this moment the financial outlook is bleak. The Welsh Rugby Union are attempting to remove benefactors from the game and as such Peter Thomas has stepped down as chairman, but this month’s Professional Rugby Board meeting failed to finalise Project Reset’s financial aspect.
As such we have no budget for next season, despite what Warren Gatland is spouting in the media, and short-term cash flow is a serious problem as we’ve had to go back to Peter at least once and take out a bank loan in the last few months.
Looking ahead there is a question about exactly how around £28m is split between four teams that realistically cost at least £9m to be competitive, and how when Cardiff Blues inevitably overspend where the money comes from to plug the gap.
Compare that money with the Scottish clubs who also had around £28m spent on them and the national team by the Scottish Rugby Union as per their most up-to-date financial reports, and it becomes clear that we are some way of our northern colleagues, let alone the Irish sides.
The future is uncertain so when talking about the present make sure to look at the facts. We have no money but we keep pounding away.