It’s (a) grim (outlook for professional rugby) up North

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So here we are, about to enter March in the week that Project Reset’s funding should finally have been announced, and it feels we are about as far away from a resolution as ever.

On a dramatic Friday evening it seemed we were all set to move forward, as Allen Clarke announced the revival of the Ospreys, after pretty much announcing their death a few hours before, as money had been found to keep them going on the current budget for next season.

A proposal was set to be put before the full Welsh Rugby Union board on Monday, subsequently ratified and then properly announced on Tuesday, however that was all far too simple for Welsh rugby and was thrown out of the window.

The sticking point seems to be relating to what happens after next season, with Martyn Phillips still unrelenting in his desire to have a professional North Wales region, as RGC are set to be stuck in a weird no man’s land as a well funded development region playing in an increasingly amateur Principality Premiership.

To do this he is trying to engineer the demise of the Ospreys, either through some sort of merger with Scarlets or Cardiff Blues, or just through their natural wastage by not confirming their existence beyond next season and watching them go to the wall.

justin tipuric ospreys
Ospreys and Cardiff Blues were talked of as merging, but that now seems off the table

That has obviously garnered a reaction from the Ospreys, who’s finance director reportedly had some strong words at a meeting last week. They were preparing a statement of their own this week, while supporters have been outspoken in their criticism of the WRU on Twitter.

Their arguments are that they are the most successful region since introduction in 2003, have provided the most players to the Welsh national team in that time, play in the best stadium that domestic rugby in Wales has, and are based in the second biggest city in the country. Fair enough.

Then there is the point that why on earth should the WRU look to close the Ospreys and introduce professional rugby to North Wales instead? This is the massive unknown that brings the whole idea down to it’s knees.

There is no evidence that professional rugby would succeed in North Wales.

Firstly, let’s look at the geography of North Wales, and I’ll refer to the team as RGC (Rygbi Gogledd Cymru) for the sake of this piece, as that is the name of the current development region.

If we give RGC the historic counties of Radnorshire and Montgomeryshire in North Powys, and the preserved counties of Clwyd and Gwynedd, it is a massive area that has around 780,000 people living within it. Not quite the 1million mentioned by some but still a significant quantity.

However, it is a massive area, with Colwyn Bay around an hour from Porthmadog, 50 minutes from Holyhead, an hour from Wrexham and closer to two hours from Newtown. With transport links fairly poor in the North of the country you will struggle to get people in, especially for Friday night kick-offs.

That leads on to the second point, whether there is the necessary appetite from those that do live within striking distance of Colwyn Bay.

North Wales is historically a football dominated part of the world, with half of the 12 Welsh Football Premier League teams coming from the RGC area, while there is a full league structure pyramid underneath this solely for North Wales, encompassing at least 14 different leagues.

Meanwhile the North Wales Rugby Union website only lists 33 teams as active in the area, with three WRU Leagues covering the North, as opposed to 20 for teams in the south.

Factor in the pull of Liverpool and Everton, and even Manchester United and Manchester City, just over the border in North West England, as well as Wrexham and Colwyn Bay both playing in the English football system, and there is big competition for a professional rugby team.

Ben_Jones_WalesU20_try_v_England_rdax_1195x700_80
Parc Eirias hosts Wales U20 games currently

As an aside, Colwyn Bay FC in the last week have been conducting crisis meetings over their poor financial position. Make of that what you will.

It is fair to say that the current semi-professional RGC do have good attendances for the Principality Premiership, averaging over 1,000 at Parc Eirias, but it’s the stadium and the finances generally that are the third sticking point.

The ground is not a fit for purpose professional rugby stadium. The capacity of 6,000 is too small, there are not sufficient refreshment facilities for a big crowd, and the corporate facilities are severely lacking.

It is particularly the corporate facilities that are a concern, as that is where the main income is found on matchdays, and what attracts sponsors. Commercial revenue is key in the professional game.

A huge amount of money is required to bring the stadium even close to the required standard, and even then there still needs to actually be the commercial interest to sustain the business. The WRU should be aware of this, considering they’re still making a loss on the Dragons in the more historically recognised rugby area of Newport, and Gwent on a wider level.

At the time of writing there is no evidence available that the WRU have anywhere close to the serious investment ready to try and make North Wales a success, either in terms of the stadium or the business as a whole.

Meanwhile in the South there is increasing apathy towards Martyn Phillips, the WRU generally and to professional rugby with anger at the situation turning to the most dangerous of feelings, not caring.

Supporters are being lost, players are being left in limbo and coaches unable to plan beyond May. Is Roger back?

One comment

  1. Agree completely.
    The RFU have struggled to get rugby going in the north. Sale play in front of some of the smallest crowds in the Premiership despite location in the Manchester area, Newcastle are about to go down and there is no sign of any critical mass in Yorkshire. History proves very stubborn. North Wales is even more disadvantaged for all the reasons you give and I can’t see the point of doing more than is currently the case . The national team already fill the Principality Stadium to all intents and purposes and we already seem to have more than enough players- just ask Thomas Young. So the calculation has to be that there will be a net benefit from replacing the Ospreys with a pro RGC. I just can’t see where that benefit will come from. In fact I see the opposite. If the Ospreys are vulnerable at the moment is that structural ie unfixable ? Or simply down to a series of management and other issues. Given population and playing pool I’d have thought the Scarlets look more structurally vulnerable than the Os but in any event both have more to offer than North Wales.
    If you were starting from scratch you may not have the 4 regions we currently have but you certainly wouldn’t be investing in one in North Wales.

    Like

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