What is going on in Welsh rugby?

Dragons Rugby

Whilst the rest of the rugby world ponders the Rugby World Cup draw and looks ahead to the Lions tour, developments which just might be the biggest shake up of Welsh rugby since 2003 have slipped under the radar. A historic vote sees the WRU takeover NG Dragons and the same may be happening at the Cardiff Blues.

Newport Gwent Dragons Takeover

Talks of a takeover have been ongoing for a year, with the Dragons looking for investment after it was revealed they were making losses of £754,840 in 2015-2016.

Unfortunately, the problems extend to the pitch as well, with the Dragons losing 18 of 22 matches in the Pro12, winning just 4. Their last Pro12 victory came at home to Treviso in January.

Back in March, the WRU, who already had a 50% club share, agreed full ownership and purchase of Rodney Parade with the Dragons and Newport RFC boards. This will be ratified dependant on 75% of 1000 Newport RFC shareholders voting in its favour.

Yesterday (9th May) at approximately 21:21, 81% of shareholders voted in favour of the takeover to stave off what would have been the abrupt end of professional rugby in Gwent with the Dragons franchise and Newport RFC going into liquidation, and benefactors Tony Brown and Martyn Hazell calling in £4.5m in debts.

Now the shareholders have ratified the takeover, the WRU will pay £3.75m for Rodney Parade, as well as £1.5m to improve facilities. They have also promised to pay £900,000 to Tony Brown and Martyn Hazell whilst Newport RFC would receive £600,000 and other guarantees and benefits. The deal would see the Newport Gwent Dragons change their official name to the Dragons, which may stir up old controversy.

And now the Cardiff Blues want some takeover action

Whilst the Dragons’ dilemma has dominated Welsh media in recent weeks, there’s been mutterings of a similar takeover with the Blues. The takeover plans involve a temporary change in the boardroom, with the WRU coming onboard temporarily to pay player contracts and staff. This comes after only the Blues endorsed a WRU plan in January to take shared control of all four regions, pooling resources to compete with the Premiership and Top 14. As of yesterday, takeover talks moved up a notch with the plan now for the WRU to take full control over the Blues on the pitch to free up the existing board to pursue major stadium redevelopment and future financial sustainability.

Is this the start of greater National Union intervention in world rugby?

WRU authority over the regions is nothing new. Encompassing the Dual Contracts, the 2014 Rugby Service Agreement (RSA) sees the WRU deliver £8.7m to the regions to be invested in qualified Welsh players, both ensuring sustainable regional rugby and a competitive national side. The proposed plan would see the formation of a joint body tasked with paying players from the same TV revenue and attendance pot.

Greater WRU intervention is certainly an appealing notion to keep talent within the borders and keep the national team competitive, treating the regions as academies and feeders with an ‘Eddie Butler style’ battlecry of “Together – Wales in union” ringing forth. But is it a pipe dream? It would move Welsh rugby further in line with the Irish and New Zealand system and should make them far more sustainable in theory. But Wales already has a decent feeder system, delivering good players with consistency, why need more? You be the judge.

Greater National Union intervention would likely see less club control of players regarding their international duty release; for instance, the RSA (within the NDC provisos) requires that the regions release their players for all senior games and 13 days for training before the Six Nations and Autumn internationals.

It would see a smoother transition from club to country with fewer senior squad players attracted to large English and French salaries. It’s just as important keeping young talent as well as established talent in Welsh clubs. Senior players play better for their country if they play week-in week-out for the same club. For instance, Halfpenny is isolated in Toulon and cannot build to that level of telepathy seen in club-and-country players. Yes, he plays with world-class players but they play an altogether different style of rugby compared to Gatland’s senior squad.

There are, of course, political ramifications with rugby centralisation. The Welsh regions, as their English and Irish counterparts, have proud traditions and fiercer rivalries that certainly made the division into regions difficult back in 2003. Take them away and you risk angering the massive fan faithful who keep the profits turning over and keep the clubs and WRU functioning. Will the need to raise investment set differences aside?

And what about a decentralised club system, with private investment?

The Dragons appealed for private investment and didn’t get so much as a sniff, whilst the Blues have two private property investors lined up for their centre of Cardiff redevelopment; I wonder if it were the rugby or prime real estate that attracted them? That seems to be the problem with Welsh rugby. There’s a trade off between passion for the game and cold hard cash. It’s the reason why the regions have largely been financially sustained by the RSA and benefactors and how Tony Brown and Martyn Hazell can rack up £4.5m in debts.

Perhaps we should look towards France? The Top 14 has attracted some exquisite foreign players with the likes of Dan Carter receiving a whopping £1.4m from Racing 92. But recent LNR attempts to cap squad spending and increasing the number of home-grown players (known as JIFFs) have stopped French clubs getting carried away. Nevertheless, the sort of funds wielded to attract world-class players brings in the crowd and makes for a spectacular league whilst, in the case of the Top 14, up-and-coming French youth can benefit from (mainly) SANZAR expertise. And rugby will go the way of football with hefty price tags and more ludicrous business profits to attract billionaires who, in turn, will invest in youth, players and facilities to keep the matchday turnstiles ticking over.

Whatever happens in the next decade, rugby remains, as it must, in the hands of the fans.

By Dave Beach