Cutting regions would threaten Team Wales

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Over the last few weeks your Welsh rugby Twitter may well have been filled with seemingly random sums. 2+2, 3+1, 2+1+1. Without context it likely looks bizarre.

The story is again linked to Project Reset, and the Professional Rugby Board’s attempts to thrash out the details of how the professional game is going to be funded over the next few years, with as yet no concrete result. The next meeting is scheduled for 5th February.

As was looked at in last week’s blog on the importance of properly funding the game in Wales, there is simply not enough in the pot to make all four regions competitive. As a result we may well end up with either two regions competitively funded and two less so (2+2), one well funded, two fairly well funded and a fourth less so (3+1) or two well funded, one fairly well funded and the fourth less so (2+1+1).

However, there is another road to go down which is to lose two of the teams, an option apparently favoured by WRU Director of Finance, Steve Phillips, a remnant from the days of Roger Lewis.

On paper this would be a huge shift forward in competitiveness for the remaining two teams as they could divide that £28m funding pot between the two of them. That sort of budget would put them on an even keel with even the top English teams and they’d have the pick of the top Welsh players.

Sean Maitland Saracens H
Cardiff Blues are well behind Saracens in the budget stakes

The squad depth would see them go toe-to-toe with the Irish teams in the Guinness Pro14, and be able to push for a place in European knockout stages, and crucially do so on a regular basis.

That is all well and good, but there are three huge blocking points that make two teams an unhelpful, untimely and high unlikely option.

Identity

I shudder to think of the Twitter fallout from pretty much any decision made to cut the current number of Welsh professional teams from four to two.

No matter whether you merge Ospreys/Scarlets and Cardiff Blues/Dragons, cut two of those teams and have one in the East and one in the West or create totally new East and West brands, never mind where they would be based, there are arguments to have for hours on end.

The simple fact of the matter is that you cannot please all of the people all of the time, but going from four to two teams means you are more than likely to annoy most of the people for a long time. We go back to 2003 in terms of starting again with a structure for professional rugby and trying to garner supporter bases.

Seats at the table

In a recent Q&A session with supporters, Scarlets chairman Nigel Short sounded tentatively optimistic when talking about the more mid-term future of the Welsh regions for two reasons.

Firstly, the current deal regarding European rugby is up for renewal in the next few years, and given time to properly organise the governing body, potentially streamline the competition and look for new avenues of investment, there may well be an increase of money for each side.

Also, the emergence of private equity firm CVC in English rugby, effectively paying £200m for the commercial rights of the Gallagher Premiership, is seen as just the start of their investment in rugby union, with the Pro14 already in early talks about them coming on board.

Having four teams involved in each competition gives the Welsh a much stronger voice when it comes to getting what is right for us, rather than the English, French and Irish sides.

Denny Solomona Sale
The Gallagher Premiership teams are due for a CVC windfall

Harming the money maker

This is the key point. While having only two professional sides would be a boost for the competitiveness of Welsh teams in the league and Europe, it would be detrimental to the national team, the very entity which we work towards strengthening and is the main regular revenue driver for the Welsh Rugby Union.

The simple fact of the matter is that you wouldn’t get as many Welsh players regularly getting game time as we do now.

At the moment, even with around six non-Welsh qualified players per team, there is a minimum of 68 Welsh qualified players in a matchday 23 in the Pro14. Go down to two teams and even with no non-Welsh qualified players allowed that number is reduced to 46.

Players could of course opt to play elsewhere, but as we have seen with a number of Wales squad members, they are not going to be managed in the same way as they are at home, and the WRU will not have access to them in the same way either. They will have to return to their clubs in the fallow weekends of the Six Nations, for example.

The case study for proving this point comes in the form of Scotland, who this season see both Glasgow and Edinburgh qualify for the quarter-finals of the Heineken Cup for the first time. As a result, if the national team are able to field their strongest team then they are more than competitive.

However, they head into this year’s Six Nations with a decent sized injury list that sees them very light on experience in certain positions.

At hooker, for example, injuries to Fraser Brown and George Turner mean the 10-times capped Stuart McInally is the only capped hooker in the squad. In the back row also, only four of the eight options have been capped previously, and Adam Ashe only has two at that.

Especially when WalesOnline’s current favourite phase is ‘strength in depth’, this is worrying for Team Wales that a move to two professional sides could force our national side to take such a backward step.

It is difficult to envisage the Welsh Rugby Union putting their prize asset at risk like this…

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