Peace finally breaks out in ugly Welsh war
WRU and Welsh regions sign new £60m agreement
The bickering and backbiting is over, the signatures are on the dotted line – presumably in triplicate, for the avoidance of doubt – and Sam Warburton, the much put-upon captain of Wales, finally gets to play a game for his home-town club, who have spent the last few weeks refusing to select him on principle.
Rugby on the far side of the Severn has not seen a day like it since the fabled Viet Gwent, otherwise known as the Pontypool front row, last packed down together with the smell of English blood in their nostrils.
After months of bitter boardroom argument over the precise terms of the relationship between the Welsh Rugby Union and its impoverished regional teams – Cardiff Blues, Newport-Gwent Dragons, the Swansea-based Ospreys and the Llanelli-based Scarlets – the two factions have settled on a new Rugby Services Agreement that carries £60m of central funding over the next six years: around £2.2m per club per season, plus access to guaranteed loan facilities and a £500,000 payment to each of the four by way of an introductory offer.
In return, the governing body will take ownership of an unspecified number of leading Test players by signing them on dual contracts.
There are a number of intriguing aspects to what Roger Lewis, the chief executive of the WRU, called a “ground-breaking deal designed to allow both our national team and our regional sides to flourish”: a limit of six overseas players on each region’s books, plus two “time-servers” who intend to qualify for Wales through residency; re-establishment of a second-string Wales A team; and a likely move to 13 full Test matches per year – a determined attempt to swell the union coffers by making the Millennium Stadium sweat like a sauna attendant.
But the most striking clause concerns international players who choose to move away from Wales: in future, those signing for teams outside the country will be ineligible for selection.
Warren Gatland, the head coach, will be permitted to make exceptions, but the emphasis is clearly on “picking from home” – a development that will be of serious concern to a number of big names, including the full-back Leigh Halfpenny, the wing George North, centres Jonathan Davies and Jamie Roberts, hooker Richard Hibbard and flanker Dan Lydiate, all of whom currently earn their money in England or France. They will face awkward decisions when their present deals expire.
Warburton will be particularly relieved at the outbreak of peace. As the only player in Wales to sign one of the half-dozen central contracts offered by the WRU at the height of the ruckus, the flanker was cast as a political football in human form, with Cardiff Blues sticking rigidly to an all-region agreement not to select anyone committing such an act. Now, he may return to action as early as tonight, when the Blues play a pre-season friendly against Leicester at Welford Road.
Lewis, who has been heavily criticised during the prolonged impasse, said the deal ticked all the important boxes, stating that “the financial ambitions of the regions have been met, as have the objectives of the WRU”.
Among the regions, who have slipped well behind the Irish provinces as well as the big-spending clubs in England and France, there was satisfaction at the promise of greater financial certainty.
“Things will not change overnight, but clear mutual goals now form the basis of an agreement that will create a stronger and more productive environment, where interests are more closely aligned,” said Nigel Short, the chairman of Regional Rugby Wales. “A thriving domestic game feeds into the success of Welsh international rugby and we can plan with more focus.”
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