Less than 10 months after winning the Grand Slam, Welsh rugby is faced with a worrying future. The poor showing of the Welsh regions in almost certainly failing to gain a place in the quarter-finals of the Heineken Cup highlights a slump in a structure that was meant to guarantee the Welsh game would flourish. The state of the four regions which replaced the old club system is looking dangerously fragile.
Mike Ruddock's great achievement in guiding Wales to the Grand Slam gave no hint that regional rugby faced a struggle to provide the flow of new blood that every successful international squad needs. It is starting to look as if Wales won the title despite the regional set-up not because of it. And if they make a good job of defending it next month they will have to overcome the loss of several key players through injury and suspension. Every player they lose reveals the lack of strength in depth the Welsh game is suffering. The talent pool has never been as shallow and two regional coaches last week warned that their fixture schedules are leaving their squads threadbare.
Lyn Jones of the Ospreys and Paul Turner of the Gwent Dragons complained about the totally unrealistic demands placed on players this winter. The season has been expanded by the introduction of the Anglo-Welsh Powergen Cup in which, ironically, the Welsh sides got off to a great start. But the addition of such a competitive event early in the season, plus the pressure of the autumn internationals made the players run a gauntlet that has claimed many casualties.
Jones warned that the system will leave Wales waiting another 27 years before they win the Grand Slam again. Turner, whose Dragons are working on a smaller budget than the other regions, said that the Welsh regions are being left behind by the rich English and French clubs.
I agree with both views but the problem goes deeper than that. The fact that the squads are so inadequate is due to the lack of young talent coming through.
While it is true that the set-up is still in its early stages we should be seeing more than just the odd youngster taking advantage of the vacancies in the regional teams. But they are not coming through in sufficient quantity or quality and while the regions are restricted to the number of non-Welsh players they can sign the situation is bound to get worse.
At the moment, each region is allowed up to six outsiders. With the average squad size being 32, that means that the other 26 players have to be Welsh. The four regional squads, therefore, must have a total of 104 Welsh players. Let me assure you that Wales possesses nothing like that number of players with the ability to compete in the tough competitions the regions face. To be realistic, there are not enough home players to sustain four regions and the only way they can be strengthened is to recruit more quality imports. Otherwise, they are going to continue to fall well short in the race for major honours.
Lack of success will result in smaller attendances, reduced income and a lack of top-level rugby to help younger players to develop. Without the chance of gaining honours at home the best Welsh players will continue to be tempted to play in other countries. It is a downward spiral that will certainly threaten the existence of at least one of the four regions.
Wales is not alone in the dearth of homegrown players. The provincial set-up in Ireland has been very successful, but the conveyor-belt is slowing up. Take their half-back situation. They have had the same four players in contention for 10 years. And as the latest squad shows there is no one yet to replace David Humphreys and Ronan O'Gara or Peter Stringer and Guy Easterby.
But the state of Wales is far more serious. The Welsh Rugby Union will have to consider urgent action to answer the pleas of coaches Jones and Turner. They can't go on putting their squads through the mincer of modern rugby without assistance from somewhere. Allowing them to get more outside help may not be the best long-term solution. But if they don't act quickly there may not be a long-term.Reuse content