iT’s OnLy oNe GaMe

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It’s been an interesting few days of differing viewpoints in Wales after Saturday’s 29-7 loss at the hands of Ireland in Dublin, and that is putting it somewhat mildly.

Opinions have ranged from “it’s the end of Welsh rugby as we know it” to “Pivac out” and on to “it’s only one game we’ll bounce back next week”. In all honesty each argument has some element of truth to ut, but it’s the first in that list of three that will be the constant over the next few weeks, months and maybe still years, despite the other two being valid to some extent.

Yes, that Wales team at the Aviva Stadium on Saturday was a poorly coached and selected side. Wayne Pivac’s continuing fascination with watching a lightweight pack lumber around the field at the direction of a fly-half who lacks any creativity is becoming somewhat sadistic, with questions asked about what Stephen Jones’ input to that is, and what the hell Jonathan Humphreys is doing during lineout training.

On the flip side you wouldn’t necessarily put it past the men-in-red to put in a huge performance in front of a full Six Nations crowd at the Principality Stadium for the first time in two years, against a Scotland side that haven’t won in Cardiff since 2002, with the burning desire to put last weekend right firing them up along with the welcome returns of Ross Moriarty and Willis Halaholo to the starting XV.

However, it is not possible to get away from the feeling, some would convincingly that’s it actually a fact, that what Wales produced in Dublin on Saturday is about where this current squad is at, and probably where they will be over the next few years.

Of course the squad is missing the quality and experience of Ken Owens, Alun Wyn Jones, Josh Navidi, Justin Tipuric, Taulupe Faletau, George North and Leigh Halfpenny, but the youngest of those is North at 29 soon-to-be 30. Realistically there’s not much left in the tank for many of those who have been the spine of the team for the last decade.

This current group, therefore, is what comes next, and it’s clearly not good enough. Why is that? Well Sei, @CapS45 on Twitter, wrote a superb piece on the Gwlad Rugby blog outlining perfectly why the Welsh Rugby Union’s amateur and frankly incompetent running of Welsh rugby over the last 12 years or so has been the undeniable cause of the current situation.

It’s the lack of support for the professional development pathway that I particularly want to focus on versus the pathway in Ireland who not only hammered us convincingly in the senior game on Saturday afternoon but absolutely annihilated us in the U20 Six Nations opener on Friday night.

Just a ferry ride away the Irish Rugby Football Union in the last full year pre-covid spent 45m euros on the professional game in the country with a further 11m euros spent on elite player development taking their total spent to 56m euros. Meanwhile in Wales, during roughly the same accounting period, the Welsh Rugby Union spent £33m on the professional game plus £5.5m on “performance rugby”, whatever that means, for a total of £38.5m.

What does that extra investment buy you? Well in 2019 Leinster officially opened the Ken Wall Centre of Excellence at Energia Park in Donnybrook, the first of five planned for that province alone, which will be home to Leinster’s age grade and sub-academy programme plus their women’s sides, servicing almost 4,000 players in the first few months of it’s existence.

The IRFU also has strong relationships with the fee paying schools that are particularly prevalent in the Leinster region, the Blackrock Colleges etc, that ensures the brightest talents are receiving the very best of rugby coaching, S&C coaching and nutrition advice from the age of 12 or 13, with around three-quarters of the home-born Ireland and Ireland U20 squads from the weekend having attended one of these schools.

So with the coaching both on-and-off the field matching the facilities provided the IRFU are seeing consistent return on their investment with talented crop after talented crop coming through the system improving the results of the provinces and we are now starting to see that translated into success for the national team too.

Meanwhile, in Wales, the professional development pathway begins at 14 where players play for their school district sides training at local community clubs, they aren’t coached by a full-time coach until the age of 16 when they likely go to an A license college where, as someone involved in an A license programme recently told me, they spend the first year behind coached out of poor practice and bad habits.

They are likely still not coached by full-time coaches at regional U18 level, and only when they step up to the full-time academy at 18 do they experience full-time coaching from the region by which time they are so far behind their Irish contemporaries that results like Friday’s U20 clash are unsurprising.

Problems then continue as their only outlet for senior rugby once they graduate the age-grade system is the Welsh Premiership which, as Wales U20 head coach Byron Hayward became the latest in a long line of knowledgeable people to confirm, is not a suitable development ground due to the gaping schism in quality between it and the United Rugby Championship.

Whereas the Wales senior squad of the previous decade was largely propped up by successful U20/U21 sides of 2005, 2008 and 2013, the grand slam winning 2016 squad has only produced Adam Beard as a regular starter in the senior squad, with many talented players not being given the opportunities needed to bridge the gap to regional first teams, never mind senior international honours.

What could, and still can, the WRU do to fix this? The answer is simple, invest in the professional game and it’s pathway.

The Union has received, or is in the process of receiving, some £85m from private equity firm CVC who have bought stakes in the URC and Six Nations. Some of that money has been spaffed on the Parkgate Hotel, a beer brand and talks of a roofwalk at the Principality Stadium, but there must be some left in the pot.

Leinster’s centre of excellence cost 1.5million euros to build. Two per region, including RGC, is a maximum £15m spend for the WRU, who could no doubt attract government, local authority and private investment, and they can be used by schools teams, regional age grade sides, colleges, universities, academies, as well as local clubs to capture those who don’t make it into the development pathway early on.

That investment can then be backed up by ensuring there is funding for full-time rugby and S&C coaching, alongside nutritional advice, for all players in the pathway from the age of 14, driving standards and creating a culture of excellence through a joined up structure.

The final piece of the jigsaw is then to up investment in the professional game itself. This will result in more players being awarded academy contracts and first-time professional deals, creating a pool of players in the 18-21 age range that will improve the quality of Wales U20 squads as well as creating development squads at each region.

These sides can then meet each other regularly, as well as either joining the English A League set up or reforming the Celtic Cup with the Irish sides and potential involvement from Scotland and/or Italy, bridging that gap between age grade rugby and first team action.

In reality I don’t expect any of this to happen unless the much-needed governance overhaul of the WRU takes places whereby the professional game runs itself with the current WRU Board purely overseeing the community game, and I don’t expect that to happen soon either as the community game remains far too wrapped up in it’s own self-importance to realise that professional people running the professional game will actually result in an increase in revenue and more money for the community game.

The pull of the gravy train is a strong one, but until the teachers and council workers on the board finally open their eyes to the mis-management of the WRU executive and finally get to grips with how the game is run in the modern world then I fear that the fortunes of the national team will only get worse-and-worse as time goes on.

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