Campaigners call for end of regions
February 10, 2012
Ospreys won the Magners League in 2010 but the Welsh Regions have struggled in Europe © PA Photos
Not even the strongest supporters of Wales's regional rugby set-up are with its current performance, say campaigners for change - and they have the numbers to show it.
Market research from public policy company Arad is part of the range of initiatives organised by Labour MP Owen Smith to back his campaign for a rethink of the current Welsh structures.
"We've polled 500 people who identify themselves as supporters of the regions and found that 50 per cent are dissatisfied with the product", he says.
Mr Smith, MP for Pontypridd since 2010 and a recent promotion to the shadow Treasury team, has commissioned other research including the polling of a further 1000 fans who do not follow regions and an examination of alternative funding and management models to back an online petition calling for reform of the regional set-up.
He says: "The petition has attracted 2,000 signatures without any publicity". He expects there to be many more before March 31, when it will be presented to the WRU along with the results of the market research and feasibility studies.
He and other Labour MPs, including former Welsh secretary Paul Murphy, this week welcomed the announcement by the WRU that it is looking again at the regional structures. Pointing to the enthusiasm for the online petition, Mr Smith said:" Now the WRU is finally listening, it needs to hear the voice of those fans and support change that builds on the Welsh clubs, represents the Valleys and restores the health of domestic rugby."
The current structures, argues Mr Smith, 'simply do not work. They are failing competitively in the Heineken Cup, the fans are not going and the stands are empty, and relationships are breaking down between the regions and the clubs'.
The son of Dai Smith, co-author of Fields of Praise, the Welsh Rugby Union's universally acclaimed centenary history, Mr Smith believes that a central failing of the regional structure is rejecting what made the Welsh game distinctive: "The clubs, the identities they expressed and the rivalries between them were the driving force of the Welsh game. We were the country whose clubs played against - and sometimes beat - other countries. People cared deeply about them. When the WRU panicked and moved to a regional structure, it gave all this up."
A further criticism - made explicit in the petition - is that the regional structures effectively exclude anyone who does not follow the four clubs on which the franchises are based. Those disenfranchised include many of his constituents - Pontypridd was a partner in the Celtic Warriors franchise which lasted only one year.
"We cut off one of the hotbeds of Welsh rugby, a major producer of players and supporters throughout its history," he says. "It hit communities that have suffered a great deal with the loss of industry - and that sense of loss has an economic dimension as well. There are people who would be high-rate tax-payers, and many others who would have some employment, if there was top-class rugby in the valleys."
Mr Smith acknowledges that his arguments will be confronted by a response that he recognises well from his political career - where is the money for this?
He says: "You can't reduce the future of Welsh rugby simply to the bottom line and it certainly is not good enough for the WRU to say 'show us the money and find a benefactor' when asked about a regional team for the valleys."
He has one practical suggestion for the union: "Interest on the debt for the Millennium Stadium is a serious inhibiting factor for the WRU, which certainly should be looking at a way to restructure that debt and reduce the pressure".
Glamorgan County Cricket club, which recently restructured its debts, provides a nearby precedent and there is also a local dimension to ownership structures being examined for their applicability in rugby: "Our researchers will be looking at community models of the sort you see at Barcelona FC, the Green Bay Packers and at Swansea City".
And those who argue that there is no realistic alternative to the current model have to face up to its own failings, he says: "It is funded by television contracts, but how long will TV pay to show matches with poor crowds in plastic stadiums?"
The WRU response shows that the future of the regions is in play, although it remains to be seen whether they are responsive to Mr Smith's vision of a more organic, democratic model that re-engages the Valleys and other excluded districts. It could be a long battle, but Mr Smith will know that. Aside from rugby,
Dai Smith has also written extensively about Aneurin Bevan, the greatest of all South Wales politicians, and has doubtless reminded his son of Bevan's view that 'The politics of Westminster are in their infancy compared to those of Welsh rugby'.
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