Wales in an amateur world of their own

Owen Slot reports on the poor relations left in the cold as the riches pour in
WHILE the world's leading international sides are busy signing lucrative contracts and preparing to play as professionals in a new professional game, spare a thought for Wales who are not. Tomorrow they leave on a short tour of South Africa and in a fortnight's time they will be fed to the world champions. Stand by, then, for the first major mismatch that the new order will bring us: the home team, now fully paid-up full-timers, versus Wales who have had no whiff of a contract and, finances aside, are still amateur all over.

This was confirmed at Sophia Gardens in Cardiff 18 days ago when all bar two of the Welsh squad gathered for the first time since the World Cup. The absentees were Emyr Lewis, who flew in from holiday in the West Indies that day, and Andy Moore, the uncapped Swansea forward, who was in St Lucia. Availability letters had not been sent out before the squad announcement 10 days previously and further in Moore's defence was his ignorance of the fact that he had a chance of being picked for the tour when he left for his holiday.

Moore actually offered to cut his trip short in order to return home for the next training session but both players were jettisoned from the squad. Three days later their heavy-handed treatment by Geoff Evans, the team manager, was made to look more than a little insensitive when he was missing from training as he himself was on a two-week holiday. As the Welsh rugby press and senior administrators chimed in their objections, it soon became clear that Wales had stumbled into a situation where the embarrassment levels came close to matching those reached when the side last went to South Africa.

It would take a brave historian to catalogue the Welsh catastrophies of the last decade, but the fact is that, given the changes to be made in the game, the pain will be felt far deeper every time the team or its administrators now shoot themselves in the foot. Earning possibilities are about to increase hugely, but unless teams are marketable, they will struggle to cash in.

Wales were faced with the reality of their value before the World Cup when Alan Pascoe Associates, who work in sports marketing, ended a six- month search for WRU sponsorship after the 500 companies they had approached all gave a negative response. "A number were interested before the Five Nations," said Alan James of APA, "but the more it went on, the less attractive the idea became. One problem Wales face is a lack of stars, apart from Ieuan Evans that is - and he was stripped of the captaincy." This was confirmed in April when Just Players, a company formed by the leading Welsh players to capitalise on their marketability, went into receivership. Playervision, the England team's equivalent, has a six-figure annual turnover.

The problem is not lost on Vernon Pugh, chairman of the WRU. "If rugby does follow a line where there is a commercial connection to playing success, then it is not good for our players," he said. "They understand that if results don't improve, then what they can expect to earn won't improve by much."

What the Welsh can expect will be upwards of pounds 20,000. This is paltry next to, for instance, the England players' expected payroll, but Pugh explains that this is down not only to poverty of results but also to the fact that Wales is the poorest of the four home unions and there is a shortage of big companies to finance a package.

As the inevitability of professionalism has increased in recent years, Wales always appeared to be one of the most likely beneficiaries. Payment to players, it seemed logical, would prevent them having to defect to rugby league. The tragedy of the present ill-health in Welsh rugby is that this argument no longer applies: pounds 20,000 is a tenth of what league tends to offer, a threatening fact since the rival code does at present have a number of the most talented Welsh youngsters in its sights. As Pugh said: "I've little doubt that someone who is offered a big package will still go."

A trip to South Africa is hardly a solution. Victory would have the sponsors running to sign up and secure the future. The most likely outcome, though, is that the pros will stuff the amateurs and scare the money even further away.