Letter of the Week

Date published: May 21 2015

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Our readers are never short of an opinion and our mailbox is seldom empty. This week it's a look at a contentious issue in Welsh rugby.

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An open letter to the Welsh Rugby Union
By Chris Hughes

A plea for common sense:  DO NOT ALLOW THE PARTICIPATION OF REGIONAL A-SIDES IN THE BRITISH & IRISH CUP

I and many others have been dismayed by the news that the WRU and the four regions plan to dispense with the involvement of Welsh club teams in next season’s British & Irish Cup, in favour of regional A-teams. Here I list some of the reasons we feel this is a bad idea:

1. The WRU and regions claim that a stepping stone is needed between the Elite and Professional strata of the game in Wales. There are a number of issues that need to be addressed with regards to this assertion:

a. Welsh club sides have a decent pedigree in the competition, especially with regards to the deficit in funding they experience in comparison to the Irish A-Sides and the English Championship sides, with Cross Keys making the final, Pontypridd twice semi-finalists (on each occasion losing out to the eventual winners, once on tries scored after the scores were level after 110 minutes) and Llanelli reaching the quarter-final stage on two occasions, this proves that despite the semi-professional nature of the clubs and their players they can compete with the best of their fully-professional counterparts from England and Ireland. Many other teams from the Welsh Premiership have gained notable victories in the competition, punching well above their weight.

b. One reason for this unlikely success is that these young players are developing their skills within a strong team ethos, playing week in-week out alongside experienced veterans of the Welsh game in front of passionate crowds.

c. It is difficult to see how taking players out of this type of environment and expecting them to gel into a team capable of beating teams of the high standards of Leinster A, Munster A, London Welsh, Bristol and Worcester (amongst others) within a short space of time is at all viable, especially considering the supposed absence of the veterans that provide the necessary experience in closing out or even just staying in games.

d. If the WRU and regions wish to make the Welsh Premiership more competitive whilst developing players they can do so easily by releasing more fringe/development players from the regional squads to play in league games, especially those young players that (or will be expected to) sit on the bench or only play a short period of the senior matches.

e. Should the regions be sincere in their objective of widening and improving the talent base available to the Wales national squad, should they not also spend less money on foreign players and give local boys the time and experience with which to impress at the professional level? There should be no complaints bringing in players of the standard of Gary Teichmann, Percy Montgomery, Justin Marshall or Jerry Collins, our boys can learn things from these greats of the game, but how many players of this standard have entered the Welsh game in recent years? And how many local boys are not being given the chance to be the best they can be?

f. Club involvement in the competition also increases the opportunities for players who may have been overlooked by the regional academies to stake a claim, especially if they are considered late-developers.

2. Crowd size:

a. Club games at British & Irish Cup level can generate a huge amount of interest, as evidenced by the attendance at the Pontypridd semi-finals against Bristol and Leinster A, drawing crowds comparable to that of the regions at well over 5,000, despite the absence of any Welsh international players (a main excuse given by many supporters of regional rugby for their own poor attendance figures).

b. Pontypridd are well known for their numerous and vociferous support, on the same weekend that Ponty played Leinster A in Ireland they took 600 supporters (and a good time was had by all!). The Scarlets played Leinster in Dublin the same weekend and their crowd has been estimated at less than 50. As much as these cross-border games are important to fans of Pontypridd, they’re as much valued by our foreign competition. Without this type of support (which the proposed A-sides will not muster), interest in the competition from the English and Irish clubs will certainly diminish, leaving the very real prospect of no cross-border competition in which our young players can develop.

c. Considering the failure of the regions to generate sufficient crowd interest in their first team games, it would be foolish for anyone to expect A-team games to garner any significant interest at all. Development players need to learn how to cope with highly emotive and pressurised situations. A-teams are extremely unlikely to provide such an atmosphere.

3. Income Revenues:

a. Pontypridd is one of the few clubs (or regions) that can claim to be making a profit, season upon season. As well as sound financial management, a large and committed fan base and the fine efforts of many volunteers, other valuable income streams arise from the big game gate receipts that the BIC provides as well as sponsorship deals, some of which could be put at risk due to reduced visibility if Pontypridd are no longer able to take part in the competition.

b. Many of the English clubs, in particular, also have a very loyal fan base. These visitors, welcomed with the customary Valleys hospitality, often give a significant boost to the rugby clubs and towns they visit, something that is very much appreciated during these hard economic times, especially considering the poverty that many of these areas are experiencing.

c. Although Pontypridd can claim to be doing relatively well financially, can the same be said of other clubs afforded the opportunity to play in the British & Irish Cup? Presumably, if the proposed plans again approval, yet more money will be diverted to the regions. Haven’t they been given enough money? Should we not be trying to support the clubs (that ultimately provide players for the regions) to make some money of their own based on the meritocracy of their achievements?

4. The Community Game: 

a. We are now well used to the WRU stating its commitment to the community game. However, this proposal is obviously against that aim, further disenfranchising an already disillusioned sector of Welsh rugby fans for seemingly little or no gain. Clubs like Pontypridd and Ebbw Vale are important hubs of their communities and taking away their opportunity to prove why these communities are so special (especially to those outside Wales) is another kick in the teeth to these players, fans and volunteers that strive to keep rugby a meaningful part of their culture.

b. The statement from WRU Chairman Gareth Davies that: “The only reason the Premiership [and by implication the lower leagues] exists is to produce players for the regions and for Wales. That is why we fund it. We don’t fund it for any of the clubs to win the league year after year. If the Welsh Rugby Union are investing 1.5m in it, that’s not just to perpetuate a competition, that’s an investment into the next generation of players. It is going in for the future welfare of our game,” suggests that the community game is really of no importance at all. Without the aspiration of winning their respective leagues or tasting cup competition success, the community game becomes meaningless.

In summary, we implore the Welsh Rugby Union not to approve nor sanction the proposals for regional A-team participation in the BIC as evidence of their commitment to a strong and vibrant rugby culture below the fully professional level.

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