Loose Pass

Date published: January 7 2014

This week we will mostly be concerning ourselves with the Welsh problem. That's plenty to be going on with…

This week we will mostly be concerning ourselves with the Welsh problem. That's plenty to be going on with…

The best news Wales had all year was the extension of Warren Gatland's contract until 2019. Sporting contracts are generally there to be broken of course, but Gatland and Wales have had such harmony for the past couple of years that it seemed the move, coming on the back of a Lions series won with a majority of Welshmen in the side, was the one that would cement the Welsh both as challengers in England 2015 and Japan 2019.

Of course, the one clause neither side wrote into the contract was probably the one about Gatland being there but not having a team to coach. But the longer the regions and the WRU descend – once again, it may be noted – into abject chaos and kangaroo-court style press releases through the media rather than looking long and hard at the big picture, the more it becomes a possibility.
Extreme scenario? Yes, but then how extreme was the press release from the regions calling for a public enquiry into revenue distribution from the Heineken Cup? It stopped short of calling the WRU thieves, but not of being bad businessmen, wimps and poor administrators.

That is not true. The WRU have done a good job of balancing their books through some tough times, re-kindling pride in Wales and the Welsh national team and helping to bring on a generation of excellent players – with Gatland a huge part of all that. The WRU's problem is that they are from a small country with a small amount of an excellent product, which is now being descended upon by stakeholders with more financial clout than the WRU could ever hope to muster.

The product is flying off the shelves. Welsh players have been leaving in droves, leaving Gatland and the WRU more and more concerned about the control they have over their national squad. Now BT Sport have entered the fray and essentially attempted to buy all four regions out from the WRU's control.

You cannot blame the WRU for feeling extremely bitter about it all. Utopia in Wales would be a Welsh stand-alone league run by the WRU, but the money in Wales is never going to be enough for that. Piece by piece, the WRU has seen its flagship clubs disappear from the map, seen its control over its elite domestic game slip away, seen its finest players tempted overseas by bigger bankrolls.

But you can now start blaming them for being appalling managers of change and conflict. When rugby in Wales went regional, the union lost a lot of ground by battling so fiercely with the clubs – not to mention the apparent dishonesty involved in disbanding the Celtic Warriors – that it was in danger of losing a source of revenue that for a while was the difference between bankruptcy and solvency.

Former WRU CEO David Moffett's business acumen and ability to make some 'bigger picture' decisions ensured the union not only survived, but became financially healthy. Mike Ruddock's brace of Grand Slams helped too. Since then, despite the occasional spat, both sides have begrudgingly looked to be at peace, with the national team winning and the regions initially promising good things.

As financial clout elsewhere has grown, the regions have fallen behind. There's also been some pretty poor decision-making made in recruitment and promotion there as well. But the bottom line is that the financial strength of the game elsewhere has grown so much that neither regions nor union can compete.

Which renders the BT Sport intervention as shrewd as it is morally abhorrent. The swine have absolutely decimated Europe's club game at the expense of many a stakeholder who had worked for years for the good of the game and for that, they'd better come up with a significant improvement in the wake of the palaver, had better be as heart and soul rugby as their predecessors. But there is little doubt the cash they have on offer – if it is for a sustained amount of time – is an offer the Welsh regions simply cannot refuse. They're gone, while the WRU so far seems to be in a steadfast denial.

The WRU no longer have the financial clout to compete with the offer made to the regions, while the statement made by Regional Rugby Wales on Saturday calling for a revenue enquiry makes sure we all know that the WRU's proposal for a restructure offered on New Year's Eve was not palatable.

So the WRU needs to think diplomatically and work out what it can gain out of the BT Sport deal, to recognise that the change is irrevocable and work out what it needs to get out of it. The longer the fight goes on the longer they might be left with nothing at all – and who or what would run the national team then?
Interesting times ahead…

Loose Pass compiled by Richard Anderson