Welsh regions set out their stall
October 17, 2008
The pleas of Wales coach Warren Gatland appear to have fallen on deaf ears ©
Wales' four professional regions have come out fighting as the battle for player release ahead of next month's Test matches intensifies.
And it now looks unlikely Wales coach Warren Gatland will assemble his squad until five days before a November 8 Millennium Stadium appointment with world champions South Africa. He had initially requested they join up after next weekend's penultimate round of EDF Energy Cup fixtures.
All the regions though, could find themselves chasing semi-final places when the pool stages conclude between October 31 and November 2. And they have now issued a strongly-worded statement signed by Ospreys duo Roger Blyth and Mike Cuddy, Scarlets chief executive Stuart Gallacher, Newport Gwent Dragons' Gethin Jenkins and Cardiff Blues' Bob Norster.
The statement read: "Given the absence of meaningful dialogue with the Welsh Rugby Union to date, it has become apparent that reaching agreement on extended player release, at least in the short-term, is unlikely. The regions remain as committed as we have ever been to Welsh rugby. Last season, during World Cup year, as the WRU's own figures show, the regions released players for national duties for a combined total of 198 days, despite only being required to do so for 104 days.
"In return, the WRU have displayed contempt for the regions, offering and then reneging on agreements, arbitrarily shifting goalposts and, latterly, asking us via the national coach to effectively overlook the EDF Cup. However, all of these issues could be holistically addressed and resolved in the future through a new participation agreement, as the Guinness Premiership clubs and RFU (Rugby Football Union) have so successfully demonstrated in England."
The WRU have yet to respond to the regions' comments, although WRU chairman David Pickering yesterday claimed talks between both parties were on-going. Gatland, who led Wales to Six Nations title and Grand Slam glory during his first five games in charge last season, is due to name his autumn Test squad next Tuesday.
After South Africa, Wales host Canada, followed by Tri-Nations champions New Zealand and then Australia. And an uneasy political situation at the top end of the Welsh game will inevitably overshadow the build-up to those matches.
The regions and WRU are also engaged in drawing up a new so-called "Participation Agreement" given the current agreement between them runs out next May.
Gatland tonight underlined his belief that five days' preparation for the opening November Test was "insufficient".
And the WRU hit back at the regions' statement, describing it as "inaccurate and misleading". Gatland said: "I am saddened at the suggestion that I was asked to speak out on the player release issue by the WRU on their behalf. To put it bluntly, I am big enough and ugly enough to speak out on my own behalf.
"Everyone knows that five days' preparation is insufficient for a major international, and that is not questioned by the regions or their executives. My focus is straightforward, in that I want adequate preparation time for the players selected to represent Wales and nothing more."
A WRU spokesman added: "Anyone who cares about Welsh rugby will be disappointed to discover that the four regions have decided to go about their business in this way. We regard the statement as inaccurate and misleading and will be addressing these points with the individuals concerned.
"Over recent months, there have been numerous meetings between the Welsh Rugby Union and the regions looking forward towards a new Participation Agreement aimed at nurturing and developing elite rugby in Wales. The latest of those meetings took place this week, and the Welsh Rugby Union regards the talks on a range of relevant issues to be progressing well.
"Therefore, we are surprised at the sudden recourse to public statements, but will refrain from engaging in detailed debate outside the format of formal negotiation. The Welsh Rugby Union remains determined to secure a Participation Agreement which will benefit the whole of rugby in Wales and ensure that our regions continue to develop and grow as competitive forces on the European and world stage."
On the field, Wales' regions all face crucial Heineken Cup games this weekend, with Ospreys hosting Perpignan and the Scarlets visiting Stade Francais tomorrow, with the Dragons travelling to Bath on Sunday, when the Blues host Gloucester.