I’d be prepared to wager decent money that no league anywhere in the world suffers as much chopping, changing and shambolic management as the Indigo Group Welsh Premiership.
Whether it’s increasing or decreasing the number of teams in the league, having or scrapping end-of-season play-offs, ring-fencing the league, having a relegation play-off or having straight one-up, one-down relegation, six point tries, or having separate east and west conferences, there never fails to be some sort of hare-brained scheme to “improve” the competition.
It belies a complete misunderstanding over whether the league is supposed to be a major part of the development pathway bridging the gap between age grade rugby and the senior professional game, or if it’s the top of the community game ladder representing the pinnacle of grassroots rugby in Wales.
Underlining that perfectly is the fact that the Welsh Rugby Union’s high performance department recommended that the Premiership be reduced to somewhere around 8-10 teams for next season in order to focus on the development aspect, only for the Community Game Board to vote to increase the number of teams in the league to 14. You couldn’t make it up!
Of course that will now actually be 13 after Llanelli, a team that is more focused towards the development side of the competition due to their links with Scarlets, have withdrawn due to the extra number of games and pressure on player numbers they will experience during the Rugby World Cup and as a result of the financial issues at the professional level.
In the background to this is the ongoing issues the league has with exposure as, since BBC Wales dropped it’s Friday night coverage of games when the United Rugby Championship returned to free-to-air, S4C has opted to show one game a week only via it’s online channels on a Thursday night. Doing that for the nominal price of £2k for the home club per game is a hindrance, more than anything.
And so now we come to this week’s problem; the WRU and the S4C teaming up in order to make the Premiership play-offs (yes, they’re back) as inconsequential as possible.
Cardiff hosting Newport and Merthyr travelling to Llandovery will be two excellent games. The Rags and the Drovers have been the two outstanding sides across the course of this season, while the Ironmen and the Black and Ambers have been the in-form sides during the second half of the season to jump Ebbw Vale and Aberavon into the top four.
A Saturday double header would have lent itself to good crowds, vibrant atmospheres, memorable days for the clubs involved, good paydays for the home sides, and no doubt still solid viewing figures for the games with no other fixtures on free-to-air television in Wales this weekend.
Instead the games will both take place on Sunday, kicking off simultaneously at 5.15pm. It’s unclear whether one or both games will be shown live, but either way it’s an utterly bizarre and backwards decision to hold the semi-finals at the same time on a day and at a time which is completely unfriendly for supporters.
Fewer supporters attending reduces takings on the gate and behind the bar, which the £2k received from S4C is highly unlikely to cover, but over and above that it makes the games less of a spectacle which is incredibly disappointing for the Premiership after an entertaining season which relatively few people follow.
The league is a lost soul, flailing around in the nothingness between the community and professional game, being manipulated for personal agendas and to fill TV schedules, and eventually being forgotten about completely as supporters lose visibility of a competition that has no purpose or narrative.
Whether the answer for the Premiership is as a smaller, higher quality development league, or a wider league at the pinnacle of the community game, it needs strong leadership and a working relationship with a broadcaster in order to reach it’s potential down either avenue.
Lingering in no man’s land only serves to massage the ego of WRU blazers who think they are doing a good job and S4C executives looking to bulk up their Sunday night showings.
Well, due to long-term commitment to a Sunday lunch gathering, I and probably many others cannot attend, it’s just not a normal KO time or day. I would love to be there but it will be impossible.