RWC 2015 England vs Wales: Why the Welsh game's lifeblood is running dry

Economic decline and the professional era have combined to devastate the once thriving heart of Welsh club rugby – and the national side’s success under Warren Gatland is only sugar-coating the grim reality. Ian Herbert reports from the Valleys

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The Independent Online

“The House of Pain” states a sign at the entrance to Pontypridd Rugby Club’s ground. There was a time when that warned visiting sides what they should expect to encounter here but now it provides a commentary on the creaking, careworn stadium too.

The waves of rain sheeting down the Rhondda Valley were creating pools on the edge of the pitch on Wednesday afternoon, to go with those forming on the grassless expanse of mud in front of the dug-out, and yet more in the car park’s potholes.

This place, with its peeling paint on the main stand and slimming-class posters losing their fight with the elements, was the scene of fire and brimstone back when Pontypridd sent up some of the finest talents the Wales national team has known: Sonny Parker, Martyn Williams, Neil Jenkins and more. Now it is an emblem for how the advent of the professional era has beaten down Welsh club rugby in a way the wealthy English sides cannot begin to comprehend: fracturing the link to the villages, towns and valleys and making the claim that rugby is the Welsh national game increasingly unsustainable.

There are many out here, at the place where the Rhondda and Cynon Taff valleys meet, who’ll tell you that beating England and journeying towards a World Cup final would rescue Welsh rugby union, no less.

It’s testament to the way Pontypridd have been managed that they’re still as good as it gets in the Welsh club game: Premier Division champions for the past four years. But that counts for far less than it once did. Professionalism began the dreadful diminution of clubs like this, where 10,000 once flocked to see the famous black and whites and nurse a common enmity towards Cardiff.

Mark Rowley at Sardis Road before the game

“We’re a very tribal people,” says Mark Rowley, a towering presence in the side’s forward unit during their golden era of the mid-1990s, who was 32 when the call from Wales finally came.

For the substantial English clubs, built on the wealth that such places as Leicester, Gloucester, Bath and Northampton will always bring, the professional game meant re-drawing the profit and loss account: identifying the high net worth individuals and companies which would pay for the big salaries and, in time, waiting for the TV money to come. But there never was much net worth in Pontypridd, especially when the coal and iron had gone, leaving only memorials – such as the metal sculpture of a coal wagon which stands at the south side of the Sardis Road ground. There’s no plaque attached to it. It doesn’t need explaining. Try suggesting to Pontypridd that they’ll be needing to pay out a £20,000-a-year salary, let alone the £600,000 Toulon pay Leigh Halfpenny, and they’ll laugh in your face. The highest paid player won’t quite make £10,000 a year at some of the best Welsh club sides.

With staggering insensitivity, the Welsh Rugby Union’s clumsy attempt to keep up with the English elite sides entailed the creation of super-clubs by conjoining places which had spent decades loathing each other. Ebbw Vale went in with Newport, who became the Dragons before Ebbw Vale split. Pontypridd went with Bridgend, becoming the so-called Celtic Warriors franchise, which folded in acrimony. That created the indignity of Ponty fans being asked to develop affinities for the Cardiff Blues. A favourite Sardis Road song is “I’ll never be a blue”.

With their best players gone to the regions, attendances a fraction of what they once were and professional business expertise in short supply, many clubs slumped into receivership. Others have cascaded down the leagues, deprived even of the WRU’s core £80,000 annual grant which a place in the Premier Division now brings.

It’s been a deeply uncomfortable coincidence that Welsh football’s meteoric rise coincided with club rugby’s fall. The combined average attendances of the four regional rugby sides is around 26,000. Swansea City attract a sell-out 20,800 every other week. Cardiff City are worried about dropping to 14,000. Any of the regional sides would kill for that. “The numbers tell you rugby is not the national game of Wales,” says Jonathan Jones, chairman and investor at Ebbw Vale.

Ponty have made the best of it, even though the 3,000 attendances are a third of those when Rowley played. They have 400 registered players between the ages of seven and 16. But even as they give, the sport they live for takes away. The club have, of this season, been denied a place in the British & Irish Cup, which provided razzle-dazzle and a competitive environment largely lacking in the Principality Premiership, where just four teams dominate. A regional team will be fielded instead. “They’re kicking our legs from under us,” says chief executive Steve Reardon.

It’s a far bleaker picture elsewhere. Pontypridd has tapped into education to find a post-industrial economy and the University of South Wales has kept the place busy. But the economic struggle has been grimmer in the more geographically remote Pontypool, where the club side’s decline has been shocking.

It’s 26 years since they closed down all the schools one Tuesday so the children could go to watch Pontypool play the All Blacks, losing  47-6. Now they are in the second tier, losing money every year, on the brink of collapse three years ago and kept afloat by local businessman Peter Jeffreys and his family.

“The professional age hit the club so hard,” says Alun Carter, who played for Pontypool for seven seasons in the 1980s, won two Wales caps and has recently concluded a period as the club’s director of rugby. “The club’s volunteers are helping it survive and there is a lot of work going on to bring in sponsorship but nobody wants to invest seriously in a team that isn’t likely to be at least in the Premiership or in big competitions. These are the economics rugby is up against. There’s a big challenge from football.”

Tredegar – once the most cold, inhospitable place on the rugby planet on a Wednesday night, Rowley remembers – have virtually nowhere left to fall, sometimes unable even to field a team.

The massed ranks of Neath would once travel to Ebbw Vale for their fixture but last Saturday they took a 17-seat minibus, from which seven supporters alighted. And everyone talks about Caerphilly, European Shield finalists 12 years ago; now eighth in the fourth tier.

 If there is hope, it is to be found in the re-emergence of Ebbw Vale, close behind Pontypridd at the top of the Premiership. Its production line of Welsh internationals includes Kingsley Jones, Paul Thorburn and Dan Lydiate. Revenues dropped from £72,000 to £4,000 when the Steelmen – the plant that once employed 9,000 has now gone too – were relegated to the second tier. The neat, well-maintained stadium reflects the husbandry of the club which chairman Jones placed in receivership before laying off staff and starting again.

The old club system had to change to meet the challenge of the wealthy English clubs in the professional era, Jones says. “There wasn’t enough money in Wales to sustain proper professional clubs, end of story,” he says. “Ebbw Vale is one of the poorest areas in Europe, never mind the UK. Look at the boards of English clubs and the guys running clubs in Wales at the time and there’s a difference. That’s not disrespectful, that’s simple economics and wealth.”

The town centre shops tell the story: two pawnbrokers, a few travel agents, an electronic cigarette shop. The premises of Recruitment Solutions lie empty behind the sign: “Shop To Let”.

“The biggest thing for me is the demographic watching club rugby in Wales,” Jones reflects. “It’s shocking. You don’t get many people under 40. You certainly don’t get many 25 and younger. We are trying very, very hard to target young people, but the only season tickets we lose are literally people who pass away.

“If you could go down the road and see Shane Williams play at Neath, it would make you want to play club rugby, but you can’t do that any more because he is playing in Swansea for the Ospreys. That’s just not as available to a young kid whose family hasn’t got a lot of money to travel. The economics of the Valleys dictate a lot of things. Disposable income isn’t that great for people.”

The national side’s success – Six Nations champions four times in the last decade – is stunning, considering the tumult and strife which have engulfed the Welsh search for a way to operate in that period. The elite end does seem to be working in the regional system. But there is a sense the length and breadth of the Valleys that Warren Gatland’s achievements have obscured how the supply line of players is decreasing as the connection between communities and clubs fracture and football crowds in.

“Where’s the next George North? Where’s the next Sam Warburton?” asks Jones, by no means the only one to voice the thought. “If you talk to people close to Welsh rugby they will tell you that once you’ve got a couple of injuries we start to struggle.”

Gatland’s headaches heading into this weekend – and Stuart Lancaster’s embarrassment of riches – certainly bear that out. Rowley talks of Gatland’s success “sugar-coating” the reality.

Thirty burly players take their chances in the mud when the old Sardis Road ground hosts a match on Thursday night between the police forces of Wales and Australia: a little taste of the World Cup by the banks of the Rhondda. But Rowley, watching from the sidelines, only has thoughts for Twickenham. “To beat England this time would help us more than all the world,” he says. “We can tell our young players this is the best game on earth but they need to see that. Then they will believe it.”