Can the Professional Rugby Agreement ever be fair?

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It seems to be the case that relations between Wales’ four professional rugby clubs and the Welsh Rugby Union are not exactly hunky dory at the moment.

The WRU are steadfastly refusing to pay the £26m requested by the four clubs for the development and additional release of international players next season, instead offering £23m, while at the same time have apparently failed to re-negotiate the Coronavirus Business Interruption Loan taken out last year with the first payment of £1m per club due tomorrow, 1st July.

I also wonder how happy the clubs are with the new fixture schedule for the United Rugby Championship, which the WRU are the shareholders of through Celtic Rugby Limited, that has seen them go from 21 to 18 regular season games, but would still only allow them to have internationals available for the same percentage of games due to two non-international weekends being left free from fixtures.

The problem the clubs have though is that they have signed up to the Professional Rugby Agreement (PRA) that ostensibly leaves them reliant on the WRU financially, despite the fact the contract is actually centred around paying the four clubs for developing Welsh players through their age grade and Academy set-ups, and then allowing them to spend more time with the Wales squad around international windows when selected.

There are a number of clauses and milestones within the agreement for each club that unlocks additional money, something which the WRU is well aware is already in short supply as we lag behind the playing budgets of the English, Irish, Scottish and French sides in both league and European competition.

Milestones for Cardiff such as “engaging more with the North of the region” and “improving commercial revenue” alongside joint clauses such as limits on the amount of non-Welsh qualified players and extra funding for players identified in a list of 38 home-based internationals decided by Wayne Pivac.

These all point towards a PRA that isn’t a contract for services provided, but a list of demands made by a master of a slave. It’s a document that wouldn’t look out of place being written about in the Bible, which is not necessarily a surprise when the WRU is an organisation that wouldn’t look out of place in biblical times.

Now the word seems to be that the PRA does not have an end date and is in fact a rolling contract, as opposed to previous iterations of the agreement between the WRU and the clubs which have been fixed-term contracts and led to chapters of history such as the civil war and project reset. The problem with that is the coronavirus pandemic has led to the PRA causing the clubs to be even more financially stuck than usual.

Pre-pandemic the agreement, which sees all remaining profit the WRU makes after it’s costs and the £11m of ring-fenced community game money is paid go to the professional game, was not ideal but was work-able. It made a mockery of the idea that all five entities were working in partnership, but it at least secured a slightly improved financial position to cut that budget gap between Wales and the countries we compete with.

Post-pandemic though it has been widely reported that the remaining money available for the professional game was just £3m, which is clearly not enough for the clubs to continue operating on and has led to pay cuts which have now seen Cory Hill leave for Japan and new signings heavily restricted.

So it’s clear that a change is needed.

Now the ideal change would be that the four clubs take hold of the professional game, pay the community game a ring-fenced amount of money that would be run by the Welsh Rugby Union, and then, as stakeholders in the competitions we play in and with taking on the operation of the Principality Stadium, set about increasing revenues and bridging the budget gaps.

However, in the short-term there are some changes the professional clubs need to force through either in the form of negotiation with the WRU on the Professional Rugby Board, or even possibly using a force majeure clause in the PRA that allows them to use the pandemic as some sort of unforeseen circumstance, if such a clause exists.

With the WRU quite clearly not paying market rate for the development of and access to players, then the four clubs should be looking into lessening that access either through not releasing them for the extra week of training ahead of the Autumn and/or Six Nations, and/or not allowing players to stay in the national team camp when they have not been selected in a matchday 23 or on fallow weekends.

Then medium-to-long term there can be discussions around a set fee for the services provided by the clubs, which would give the four businesses a chance to properly plan for their own futures and paths to success that ultimately leads to international team success.

Without any budging from the WRU they will of course preserve their access to high quality international players for an absolute bargain of a price through the PRA, but as the years go on and the financial deficit continues at club level the quality of players heading into the national team will decrease, and as Wales’ results worsen so will the WRU’s revenues.

Until the Union realises that is the future direction of travel as things stand though, the clubs have to go about working to tilt the PRA in their favour, rather than carrying all of the risk and not garnering much of the reward. If we continue to just to accept being the slave in this relationship then there’s not any light at the end of the tunnel.

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