A month is a long time in professional sport, and I certainly hope that the Welsh Rugby Union will be feeling that intensely over the last two weeks.
In fact it was just three weeks ago that Wales Men’s team were crowned Guinness Six Nations champions after France beat Scotland in Paris, but very quickly the good feeling from that victory wore off as first all four Welsh club sides crashed out of Europe, followed by Wales Women’s team suffering heavy defeats against France and Ireland.
There will be many casual rugby fans around the country who still believe that all is well with Welsh rugby as the men’s side take home a sixth Six Nations title in 16 years, and that the WRU is doing a fine job of running the game here.
However, the tide is turning against the governing body faster than ever as social media, with the help of key figures within the club and women’s game, begin to understand the failings of the Union when it comes to supporting anything that isn’t the men’s national team and the jollies of blazers.
It is evidently clear that the men’s professional club game in Wales is so financially poor to the point where it is uncompetitive in both the Guinness Pro14 and in European competition. Budgets are drastically behind the majority of English, French and Irish sides, and looking at the signings of some of the Scottish sides recently, we are lagging behind there as well.
The WRU do not pay properly for the access it receives to the international players, which includes an additional week of training camp prior to international windows and retaining players during the international windows when not selected for the matchday squad, as well as not paying for the service provided of developing the players from the age of 14.
Now I won’t pretend to be anywhere near up to speed on the issues facing the women’s game in Wales, but having read tweets from current and former players it is clear that funding is an issue here too, with the players forced to hold down full-time jobs and travel to training two-to-three times a week around that if they wish to represent the national team.
They must also do similar to play for English sides in the Premier 15s competition, with the second issue facing the women’s game in Wales being the complete lack of structure beneath the national team. There are no sanctioned competitions outside of schools/university, there are no Wales age grade sides, and regional U18 and senior teams come together sparingly.
Of course, Welsh rugby is not flush for spare change. We are limited by the size of the country and the health of our economy, with Welsh rugby’s heartlands being one of the poorest regions of Europe. However, that means what money is generated must be spent wisely.
First and foremost the WRU have to ensure that rugby in Wales is fully functioning for all; minis, juniors, youth, men and women. That should be the very basic requirement. Boys and girls, men and women should have plenty of opportunity to play in good facilities, then both the men’s and women’s games should have a clear and well-oiled high performance pathway to ensure national team success.
At the moment though there are simply too many clubs so the community game funding is spread too thinly, preventing facilities and coaching improving in certain areas, while the men’s high performance pathway is faltering at professional club level with a noticeable impact on the men’s national team coming, and the women’s high performance pathway is non-existent.
Instead of addressing that though, especially at this key time during a global pandemic, the WRU is committing to spending it’s resources, including big payments from private equity firm CVC, on a number of off-field projects; such as a hotel on Westgate Street, a roof walk attraction on the Principality Stadium and a craft beer brewing project.
I understand the argument that by investing in these it can equal greater returns down the road, as the CVC payments are in lieu of future earnings from the Pro14 and Six Nations, but the simple fact of the matter is that it won’t matter if income is increased in 5-10 years if by then the game has died due to poor performances and subsequent lack of inquest.
There’s no need for many to be reminded of the 80s and 90s that followed the success of the 60s and 70s as the blazers at the Union rested on their laurels, and there’s a very real possibility that the 20s and 30s could be a re-enactment of them after the success of the 00s and 10s.
The WRU needs to fix what is in front of it’s eyes before chasing money from elsewhere, but to do that it would need to deal in something which it is not accustomed to; honesty.
Yes the men’s team may have lifted the Six Nations trophy, but all is far from good in Welsh rugby.