Why Welsh rugby players are vacating the valleys
A host of top players are set to join exodus as elite clubs face struggles on and off the pitch
Cardiff Blues finished second at the weekend. Again. So did Scarlets, their fellow Heineken Cup contenders, and it is an odds-on bet that neither will feature in the knock-out stage of Europe's elite club tournament. Ospreys also went down, although the Swansea-based team put up a decent fight at Leicester. Newport Gwent Dragons? Oh dear. A second successive defeat in the second-tier Amlin Challenge Cup means that they have as much chance of making the quarter-finals as Carwyn James, the patron saint of Llanelli, has of rising from his grave to coach the national team.
The four regional sides are losing right, left and centre – and not just on the field of play. They are losing money in sums they cannot afford (and in some cases do not have); they are losing their best players to France, where the top professional clubs are throwing euros around like confetti; and they are losing their patience with the Welsh Rugby Union, which they accuse of undermining them at every turn. As a result of all this, one of the world's great union-playing nations is in danger of losing its soul.
Much has been said in recent weeks about Jamie Roberts, the Cardiff Blues back whose performances for the British and Irish Lions in South Africa in 2009, and for Wales at the last World Cup, established him as the best inside-centre in the sport.
Racing Métro, the free-spending Parisian club, are said to be offering him around £28,000 a month to join them next season and, for all the talk of the Blues and the governing body making a joint pitch to keep him where he is, no one west of the Severn seriously expects him to be at the Arms Park this time next year.
But there is more to this problem than Roberts and, perhaps, the excellent Dragons flanker Dan Lydiate joining Lee Byrne, James Hook, Mike Phillips, Gethin Jenkins and Luke Charteris on the far side of the water.
The regional sides believe the Welsh Rugby Union is cutting the ground from beneath their feet by refusing to back them financially, or even acknowledge their contribution in developing the players who have brought Wales three Six Nations Grand Slams in eight years and took them to within an ace of a first World Cup final 12 months ago. In fact, they go further. They say the union is actively marketing the national side against the regions and stripping them bare as a consequence.
"Here are some facts for you," said Rob Davies, one of the Ospreys' directors and principal investors. "The English and Scottish clubs receive upwards of £5m a year from the central pot, as do the Irish provinces. In Wales, the regional sides get £3.5m. And we're meant to be competitive? With that kind of shortfall?
"If we lose a million over the course of a season, we're doing bloody well. There are people there [in the WRU] paying themselves bonuses when there isn't a single director on the Ospreys board who gets paid anything all. In fact, we still buy our own season tickets.
"What we have here is a completely one-sided arrangement. The WRU takes in all the money and distributes it the way it chooses. The union does nothing to promote the regions – there is never a mention of us in the match programme when Wales are playing – and I agree with those who suspect the governing body has a deliberate policy of marketing the national team against us, rather than in a way that would help us develop.
"In the end, we simply won't be competitive. And if you're not competitive, what's the point of being involved? Of course the best players in the country will look elsewhere – it's inevitable that they will leave.
"What will that do for rugby in this country in the long term, or for the Wales team, come to that? All I want from the people from the union is an honest discussion about their vision for the future of the game here.
"If they want to buy the Ospreys and run the side out of central funding… please, feel free to give it a go. I don't think it would work, but they're welcome to try. If not, commit to us on the basis that regional rugby is the right way ahead."
Davies operates in a sporting landscape that has been turned on its head by the emergence of Swansea City as a Premier League football club – the Swans made more money last year than the WRU.
There are many rugby lovers in the towns and valleys who wonder whether the union game will survive the football onslaught, who are profoundly disturbed by the thought that the union's record turnover of £63.2m in 2011-12 pretty much mirrors the amount of money invested, and to all intents and purposes lost, by those who have tried to make regional rugby work over the last decade.
While Davies believes all four teams will survive for the remaining 18 months of their current franchise arrangements, it is only because they are down-sizing on a scale certain to force top-end talent to seek better-paid work abroad.
"We're all reducing the cost base," he said. "In England and France in particular, club rugby income is increasing. Here, it's decreasing. Relative to the market, we're unsustainable. I'm an optimist by nature, I believe that we have sufficient gifted players in Wales to fill the gaps left by those who head overseas. But that won't last forever."
Before the start of this Heineken Cup tournament, when the English clubs exploded a depth charge beneath the boardroom table by announcing a unilateral £152m broadcasting deal with BT Vision that included around £50m for a new cross-border competition constructed to their own design, there was deep concern at the ramifications for teams in Scotland and Italy, routinely described as the most fragile top-tier rugby nations in Europe. It is increasingly evident that Wales is every bit as vulnerable to economic forces at a time of global recession.
Some in the traditional strongholds of Cardiff, Gwent and the Swansea valley fear that the WRU could replace the existing four-team structure with something half the size, thereby falling in line with the Scots and Italians. Others wonder whether Welsh rugby is ripe for what might be called Argentina-isation: in other words, a mass exodus of international-class players to richer sporting markets on contracts that guarantee release for Test windows.
Negotiations between the governing body and Regional Rugby Wales are under way, but they are fraught in the extreme. Roger Lewis, the chief executive of the WRU, is about as popular among the club investors as Harlequins once were at Pontypool Park. As Eddie Butler, the former national captain, said: "There is a fifth region, the ultimate region: Wales."
Butler added: "If you load the top and weaken the bottom, even the mightiest of towers can fall with a crash."
The lock had spent nine years at Newport-Gwent Dragons before signing a three-year contract with the French club in May.
The scrum-half left Ospreys for Bayonne in 2011. He is currently banned following several incidents, according to the French club.
After eight years at Cardiff Blues, the Wales prop – who is the most capped Welsh front-row player – signed for Toulon last summer.
The former Ospreys fly-half announced in November 2010 he would move to Perpignan.
Another Osprey who has flown the coop, the full-back announced he would sign for the French outfit after the 2011 World Cup.
Racing Métro and Toulouse are said to be interested in the Blues centre, whose contract expires next summer.
Another whose contract is up in the summer. Currently out with a broken ankle.
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