WRU deal could benefit world game
September 8, 2009
Canada were popular visitors to Wales in 2006 and 2008 © Getty Images
Did anybody actually believe that the Welsh Rugby Union (WRU) and the regions were not going to reach some sort of deal?
It would certainly have represented something new and special in the way of self-destruction to torpedo a Test match against the All Blacks. The WRU knew what they were doing in making that particular contest the point of contention.
Had it been, say, Australia, then the regions might have been disposed to push closer to the brink. At the same time they will feel the effort was worth it, with a sharp increase in central funding over the five years of the agreement.
And most importantly, whether they like the precise detail of the deal or not, every party - and those most affected, like Warren Gatland and his coaches - knows where they are between now and 2014.
One particular detail leaps out - that the contract allows for Wales to play up to 13 internationals in a year. Given that relations nearly broke down over an 11th match - the All Black clash makes for a four-match autumn programme to go with five in the Six Nations and two on the summer tour - this is a striking development.
It first acknowledges that Wales are going to have to play a fourth autumn international, not least to pay the interest still outstanding on the Millennium Stadium, for the foreseeable future, so it makes sense that get that sorted out without an annual barney.
Number 13 is apparently a matter of contingency, but number 12 is likely to happen this season, slotted in just before Wales depart for the summer tour. WRU spokesman John Williams says that plans for the match are well advanced.
While fundraising will never be far down the list of priorities, the timing of this match suggests it might also have a development role, both in Wales and other nations. There is no point in playing an extra match against any of the Five Nations and the Tri-Nations will be sharpening their swords in anticipation of the northern tourists. The various islanders would be struggling to put together decent squads at that time of year.
That would leave Argentina as much the most attractive possibility, albeit liable to depletion because of the French playoffs, while Canada's role as a partner in the WRU's North Wales initiative must make them likely opponents at some point. Let's hope, though, that the WRU don't forget other nations who might not pull in huge crowds, but could attract those with a sense of curiosity and would themselves benefit from exposure to a higher class of opposition.
Georgia, eternally desperate for serious matches, should certainly be given a chance. Romania, Portugal - pretty much anybody at the top end of FIRA competitions. Uruguay might still teach us a thing or two about scrummaging, and Morocco could be helped at last to crack World Cup qualification. Japan have been popular visitors in the past, and why not Korea?
Maybe it wouldn't make much money, but it would be good for the game as a whole, and might just be decent politics. As one of the smaller, poorer established rugby nations, Wales sometimes finds itself threatened by the priorities of the richer ones. Making friends among those slightly further down the food chain, some with votes on the IRB, makes sense.
So maybe those countries wouldn't fill the Millennium Stadium, at least at the usual prices. Two alternatives present themselves. One is to imitate the FA of Wales who around a decade ago slashed prices and for a while could claim to be the best-supported international football team in Europe. Charge adults a fiver or a tenner, let kids in for nothing or a quid, and see what happens.
Alternately take matches somewhere that isn't satiated with international rugby - Parc y Scarlets, Liberty Stadium or Wrexham - and will respond to the occasion. Matches at Wrexham would also fit well with the WRU's latest North Wales initiative, which looks considerably better thought-out than past ventures like trying to turn Wrexham into a senior club or hoping that the Scarlets, who had quite enough on their plate already, would galvanise the region.
The agreement with the regions buries speculation about the creation of a fifth franchise in the North. The new plans centre on an academy aimed at providing a development structure for talent from the region that gave us Wilfred Wooller, Dewi Bebb, the Moore brothers and Robin McBryde.
The North Wales representative team bolstered by a few young Canadians looks tailor-made for inclusion in the European Challenge Cup and perhaps fixtures against the match 12 visitors in a season or two. This looks like a sensible strategic step rather than an ill-conceived attempt to force progress.