Senior figures in Welsh rugby are concerned that the great player-drain, which has already seen international personnel as influential as the prop Gethin Jenkins and the scrum-half Mike Phillips lured across the water by the big bucks on offer in France, will soon claim the Lions centre Jamie Roberts. "My resources are limited," admitted the Cardiff Blues chief executive Richard Holland yesterday. "I don't think the offer I can put on the table will be enough to keep him."
It was the last message the struggling Blues wanted to send out so close to a Heineken Cup campaign, which begins this weekend with a must-win match at Sale, the bottom club in the English Premiership, but Holland was being no less than honest. Roberts, a stand-out player for the Lions in South Africa in 2009 and a key performer for Wales at last year's World Cup, will have half of Europe eating out of his hand the moment he puts himself on the market – something the Arms Park club fear he will do at the end of the season.
"Jamie comes out of contract next June and has already been approached by French clubs," Holland told Wales Online. "He's a commodity other people want in their teams. I know what sort of level I need to get to in order to retain his services and I simply haven't got it. We have to stay within a £3.5m salary cap and as a business, we can only spend what's coming in. There is a complete desire to keep Jamie here. Hopefully the Welsh Rugby Union shares that desire and we can reach some sort of agreement to enable us to achieve it."
There is a growing view in the Principality that the Welsh Rugby Union, which has just announced the highest turnover in its history together with record pre-tax earnings of more than £27m, must pump extra money into the four professional teams if regional rugby is to keep its head above water. The likes of Jenkins and Phillips are not the only front-line players raking it in on the far side of the Channel: the midfielder James Hook and the lock Luke Charteris are also in France.
Discussions between the governing body and the regional teams are continuing, but Holland believes certain players, Roberts being one of them, may be lost before any improved central investment deal is hammered out. "I don't know at this stage if the WRU will come up with additional resources to keep Jamie," the CEO said. "Ultimately, that is their decision, not mine. But in Jamie's case and that of some other guys, it absolutely needs addressing rapidly. Otherwise, they will go."
Ospreys, perhaps the team hit hardest by big-name departures in recent seasons, know they will be up against it when they embark on their European adventure with a home game against the fast-improving Italians of Treviso at the Liberty Stadium on Friday night. "The expectation is sky high," said Ryan Jones, the former Wales captain, "but we really have our work cut out. Years ago, we used to talk about winning our home games in this competition. Now, you really have to win every game if you want to reach the quarter-finals, and when you're in a group with Toulouse and Leicester, that's a big challenge."
Scarlets, the third Welsh contenders, are considering throwing a new signing, the Argentine lock Tomas Vallejos, straight into the mix for their daunting meeting with Clermont Auvergne in France on Saturday. The former Harlequins forward arrived at the Llanelli-based club yesterday after a tour of duty with his national side.