Light at the end of the tunnel for Welsh rugby?
January 3, 2014
The Welsh regions are facing an uncertain future © Getty Images
The Welsh Rugby Union stepped back from the brink on Thursday evening and indicated it is at least prepared to enter into a dialogue with the regions before all-out civil war erupts in the Principality and Welsh rugby is left without any meaningful structure. It is still far too early to talk about light at the end of the tunnel but at least somebody has found a torch.
Nevertheless, it was touch and go. Only 24 hours earlier the WRU had responded to the regions refusing to extend their Participation Agreement with a hugely aggressive assertion of their rights and intentions.
'The Welsh Rugby Union is confident that professional teams from Wales will continue to take part in sanctioned league and cup competitions in the best interests of all of Welsh rugby. The WRU also remains confident that a European rugby cup competition under the management of the ERC will take place next season. Welsh teams will also continue to play in the Pro12 league organised by Celtic Rugby Ltd.'
The statement finished with a reminder that the WRU reaffirmed its commitment to IRB regulations which only allow cross border competitions if they are approved by the relevant Unions. The rhetoric was totally uncompromising - The WRU seemed intent on using the big stick to try to beat Regional Rugby Wales (RRW) into submission.
The implicit threat was that the Scarlets, Ospreys, Blues and Dragons would no longer be considered the nominated teams for the Pro12 league and the Heineken Cup and would be replaced with new 'regions' to be set-up by the Union. The four existing franchises would, effectively, have been put out of business, totally undermining all the investment and effort that has gone into building the present, imperfect but substantial infrastructure.
Now, they have reversed that stance and have agreed to work with RRW through January to discuss a new Participation Agreement - exactly what the regions had been asking for all along. As one of their directors said to me in Cardiff on New Year's day, "people talk of negotiations going on for months but the reality is that there has been no real dialogue at all - we want to spend January exploring a new structure which works for everybody, the WRU needs to recognise the work that has been done by the regions, instead it seems intent on destroying us."
This move brings another new twist to the line-up and battle for control over European competitions. If, as it now appears, the WRU is prepared to back the formation of a new British and Irish Cup - the Champions Cup proposed by PRL - the French would be left out in the cold and any diluted Heineken Cup run by ERC the present governing body would be dead in the water.
Reading between the lines there appear to be two reasons for this abrupt change of policy. First, the moderates on the WRU board obviously prevailed at yesterday's meeting and persuaded the warmongers that compromise and cooperation has to be the way forward but that could well have been precipitated by some legal advice that suggested the WRU was not holding all the aces after all.
Gareth Davies, CEO of Newport Gwent Dragons, raised the spectre of the future of Welsh rugby being decided by a High Court judge in London rather than by the interested parties on Welsh television on Wednesday. That was based on legal opinion taken by the regions that the WRU might well be in breach of competition and fair trading laws if they refused to allow the four Welsh teams to join the Aviva Premiership.
Davies' comment, "The regions are the guys who have created all these players for successful Welsh teams. They aren't prepared in Wales squad sessions. It has got to be Wales PLC and not the Union against the regions," appears to have really struck a chord with Welsh supporters and nobody in Wales really believes new franchises in Neath, Pontypridd and North Wales (nobody seems to know where the fourth one would be) would work.
The Holy Grail for the regions would be to play in the Aviva Premiership but that is not supported by some of the English clubs except as a last resort. The preferred option and the one that gives everybody (apart from the French who seem to have lost out badly by trying to make FIRA the new governing body) something they can claim as a sort of victory appears to be this new British and Irish Champions Cup backed by a big chunk of money from BT Sport.
That will give the regions the extra £1 million a year they say they need to survive and in return they will stay in the Pro12 League and in the WRU fold. The next few weeks will see a battle for hearts and minds in the Welsh rugby community. There is still a long way to go but at least the dysfunctional Welsh rugby family is on speaking terms again and common sense might just prevail. Blwyddyn Newydd Dda!
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John Taylor is a former Wales international who toured with the British & Irish Lions in 1968 and 1971. Since retiring he has worked in the media and has covered the last eight Lions tours as a commentator or journalist