Nobody wins – Being a supporter in the dour times

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It’s quite difficult to pitch a piece like this without it sounding like a “woe is me” attention grab. There’s a risk it falls under the same banner as a tweet from a certain rugby journalist last weekend that effectively read “won’t somebody thinking of the sponsors?!”.

However, as the fall out from a week of strike action, mass meetings and beleaguered press appearances continues my mind can’t help but be drawn to the upcoming round of season ticket renewals that Cardiff and the other Welsh professional clubs will commence ahead of the 2023/24 campaign.

My sympathy continues to lie with the players above all else. Not knowing whether they have contracts in three months time must be incredibly tough when you’re still being asked to train and play regularly, and while there are small wins around being able to opt for fixed contracts, having a spot on the Professional Rugby Board and reducing the 60-cap rule to 25-caps, they are still in a less than ideal situation.

A big part of the turmoil stems from the seemingly non-negotiable fact that the payments the Welsh Rugby Union make to the four professional clubs will be slashed massively over the next two years, despite the amount of events the Principality Stadium is set to host, the money brought in from two CVC deals, and the investment in a hotel that should supposedly protect revenue in that time.

That means that over the next two years the wage budget at each professional club will need to come down to around £4.5m in total for players, with no additional payments for international players. To put that into context, Cardiff are currently operating on a player budget of between £6m and £6.5m.

The WRU seem to think that the pro clubs can run squads of around 40 on that money, with around 15 Academy players sitting just behind them, yet the Blue and Blacks only have 42 senior players this season with 18 Senior Academy members. A reduction of five players alongside a player wage budget cut of perhaps £2m. It seems unlikely at best.

As a result there are two possible outcomes; either we run a 40-player senior squad with players taking drastic wage cuts, likely leading to top players taking up offers elsewhere and the remaining squad being comprised of lower quality players, or we run a 30-35 player squad with higher overall quality but a distinct lack of depth to deal with international call-ups and injury.

The end product is almost certainly the same, no Welsh professional club has any chance of being competitive in the United Rugby Championship. With qualification for the Heineken Champions Cup reverting back to pure meritocracy in the league table from next season it means no Welsh sides in the URC play-offs or at the top table of European rugby.

So this is where I come on to the supporter. What do we do now?

Supporting a sports team, much like a dog, is for life not just for Christmas. It comes with good times and bad times, and while winning games and trophies certainly helps with the motivation to get to matches on cold and dark winter nights, turning your back on your club is much easier said than done.

Yet usually there is an appreciation that the bad times don’t last forever. In this circumstance though, they’re set to last at least six years – the length of the Professional Rugby Agreement. With little trust in the WRU to build revenues and re-invest them in the professional game, and little scope for the pro clubs to increase their own revenue while uncompetitive, six years of mere existence it is.

Perhaps until one of the clubs goes to the wall, anyway.

And that is the crux of the matter. No longer will we be supporters aiming to push our team on to victory, hoping to see some kind of success. Instead we will be supporters aiming to see our team merely take the field for each fixture, hoping to see the start of the next season.

Parting with hard earned money and spending many hours travelling to games and standing on terraces no longer becomes about anything other than feeling like it’s doing our bit to keep the club afloat. It’s a desperately sad state of affairs and will no doubt test the resilience of many in Welsh rugby, with many rightly expected to turn their backs.

The players will likely be worked harder than ever and for less money, the coaches given a thankless job of trying to piece together performances from what is left of their squads, the management trying to grow a business while everything around them is cut.

Nobody wins, when all is said and done.

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