Welsh regions powerless to staunch player exodus
The clubs say the WRU wants them to disappear, replaced by franchises
It is not just football in Cardiff that is befitting of the pantomime season. As one Wales rugby player after another takes up contracts outside the country during an angry stand-off between the Welsh Rugby Union (WRU) and the four regions who play in the Heineken Cup and Pro 12, the treble Grand Slam-winner Ryan Jones offered a suitably Christmassy analogy when asked whether the exodus of more than a dozen stars to clubs in England and France would hamper the national team ahead of the 2015 World Cup.
"The proof of the pudding will be in the eating," said Jones, the Ospreys forward and some-time Wales captain. "There have never been so many players away, en masse, and the obvious concern is of a detrimental effect on Wales.
"There's a huge amount of preparation, time and effort – and control – that goes into international rugby, and if you have players in France it becomes difficult. The flipside is that if they're playing in top competitions maybe they're having an advantage over [Welsh] clubs that are less competitive. In four months' time we might be looking at winning the Six Nations title for the third year in a row and decide it's not as bad as it seems."
Some unhappy regional directors are painting the WRU chief executive, Roger Lewis, as the Vincent Tan of rugby piece. Lewis has told the regions, who are losing money, that they must disregard their lack of faith in the Pro 12 and Heineken Cup and sign up this month for the second half of the 10-year WRU participation agreement established in 2008.
In doing so the regions would forget entering an Anglo-Welsh League with the BT-backed English clubs, even though that competition has support from the Wales coach, Warren Gatland. The regions, who have almost a polar opposite view to Lewis's of how their business competence was measured in a PricewaterhouseCoopers report a year ago, argue that much has changed since 2008, not least the buying power of the French, who are set in mid-January to announce a domestic TV deal worth up to treble the €31 million (£26m) a year they achieved in the last round – and to a lesser extent the English.
One region's chief executive said the 3.5 per cent index-linked uplift in the WRU participation agreement, that would take the current £6.6m WRU payment for player release and other matters up to £7.6m by 2019, ought to be 100 per cent if the regions are to fight off bids from the likes of Toulon for Wales stars, including the full-back Leigh Halfpenny. An uplift of 20 per cent might settle the row, but the unknown is how keen Lewis might be to do things differently.
The regions say Lewis wants them to disappear, to be replaced by two or more franchises based on WRU central contracts – a huge snub to the private businessmen who say they have ploughed £40m into the regions while the WRU have been busy paying down debt on the Millennium Stadium.
There is talk of court action against the Union over restraint of trade and abuse of a dominant position. The WRU admit they have offered central contracts, but confusion reigns over the terms. The Blues believe their Wales captain Sam Warburton, who has become something of a pawn in the game, is ready to accept a salary comprising £200,000 from the region, £150,000 out of the Union funds, plus whatever he makes from playing for Wales and image rights – possibly as much as £500,000 but still less what he might earn in France. But on Friday the BBC reported the WRU were ready to deploy central contracts in the absence of a renewal of the participation agreement.
Meanwhile Warburton's shoulder injury might keep him out of the opening Six Nations matches in February, and possibly for much longer.
A crowd of 10,000-plus kept the Arms Park bars busy beyond midnight on Friday after the Blues-Ospreys match, the first in a popular series of five Welsh derbies over the festive period. "If we had 25 matches like this a season we'd be on to a winner," said Jones. But not every week is like this, with attendances well below capacity for the regions and sometimes for Wales during their elongated autumn programme, which is one of the regions' many gripes.
"I desperately want to see our best players, our heroes, playing locally," said Jones. "It's a Catch-22. Our guys wouldn't be headhunted from France if Wales hadn't had their recent Six Nations and Lions success. We are under attack.
"I still believe there's going to be regional rugby and European competition, but it's in others' control. The next three weeks is a wonderful opportunity for this generation of players to put a marker down and show that we're proud to play here. We'll make it as good a spectacle as we can. That's all we can do."
Wales players in exile
Jamie Roberts; Racing Métro
Mike Phillips; Racing Métro
George North; Northampton
Dan Lydiate; Racing Métro
Luke Charteris; Perpignan
Paul James; Bath
James Hook; Perpignan
Craig Mitchell; Exeter
Tavis Knoyle; Gloucester
Lee Byrne; Clermont Auv
Dwayne Peel; Sale Sharks
Jonathan Davies; Clermont (from 2014)
Ian Evans; Toulon (from 2014)
Richard Hibbard; Gloucester (from 2014)
Out of contract next summer
Leigh Halfpenny; Cardiff Blues
Alun Wyn Jones; Ospreys
Adam Jones; Ospreys
Rhys Priestland; Scarlets
Bradley Davies; Cardiff Blues
Staying for now
Toby Faletau; NG Dragons
Alex Cuthbert, Gethin Jenkins, Cory Allen; Cardiff Blues
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