Welsh spat snowballs as 6N looms

Date published: January 30 2014

Sam Warburton claims he will play for Cardiff Blues on a central contract next term despite the regions insisting no agreement exists.

Sam Warburton claims he will play for Cardiff Blues on a central contract next season despite the regions insisting no agreement exists.

The Wales skipper became the first Welsh player to sign a central contract with the Welsh Rugby Union on Saturday, and in his Telegraph column on Wednesday alleged he would be free to continue training and playing with the Blues as normal from next season.

Indeed, Warburton states he expects to see more Welsh internationals signed up on Union-funded central contracts.

“One of the main parts of the negotiation was that I told the union I only wanted to sign a central contract if I could play for the Cardiff Blues,” said Warburton.

“So I hope nobody thinks that I am turning my back on the Blues. I am not. I supported Cardiff as a youngster and have come through their system.
I am Cardiff through and through and would find it uncomfortable playing for anyone else. If I had not been able to play for the Blues, it would have been back to the drawing board.

“I will admit that there were a couple of options in the French Top 14 that I did seriously consider at one stage. After the British and Irish Lions tour last summer there was a lot of talk about players going to France, and for a while I thought maybe it might suit me. But then after five weeks off, I came back into the Blues environment and I knew that this was where I wanted to be.

“I thought it was a great opportunity for me to sign with the union. For me it is a win/win situation. I can train with the Blues and play for them. In that respect everything will be as it is now.

“As a national contract player I would be subject to the same call-up rules as any other member of the squad so I cannot see any difference in my rugby routine from now on. That is how it will work. It will be similar to how central contracts work in Ireland and New Zealand.

“I think central contracts can work, and will work. I am sure more Wales players will sign up, and it will become clear that it is not the WRU competing against the regions. It is about everyone working together.”

As Warburton's column appeared on the Telegraph website late on Wednesday, Regional Rugby Wales (RRW) – the body representing the four regions – released a statement reiterating that no deal allowing centrally contracted players to feature for the regions was currently in place.

This served to further muddy the waters of Welsh rugby ahead of Saturday's Six Nations kick-off, and the national side's Cardiff meeting with Italy.

The RRW statement read as follows:

Firstly, it is important for the Welsh Regions to stress that they have the utmost respect for Sam Warburton as a player, a leader, a young man of great integrity and as an important role model for every young rugby player inside and outside Wales.

At the same time, the Regions respect and support the right of Sam or any individual to make their own decision for their future based on their understanding of the choices available to them at any one time.

The introduction of one individual national contract at this particular time, however, leaves the Regions bemused and they would question the strategy behind the bizarre action by the WRU given that a final agreement on the future of Welsh Rugby has yet to be reached.

The Regions would ask what kind of message this sends out about Welsh Rugby to our colleagues in the game across the world.

The Regions would also question how one national contract works as a constructive and sustainable strategy for the whole of Welsh rugby given that we have some 200 professional players in Wales contracted to the Regions.

The Regions are concerned about the impact of this action, the confusion it creates within Welsh Rugby at this time and how it may unsettle the balance of strong and close-knit team environments at the Regions.

For many months through the proper channels of the Professional Regional Game Board, the Regions have attempted to discuss a number of pragmatic options for different contract models with the WRU; as part of a wider structural solution that focuses on delivering sustainable and competitive professional rugby at all levels over the next ten years.

These proposals had at their core the objective of retaining our Welsh International players and ensuring they trained and played their weekly rugby in Wales.

The proposals also confirmed that the Regions would only play a centrally contracted player on collective agreement between all four Regions – as part of a complete structural solution for the future of the game in Wales.

This agreement between the four Regions was to ensure that any national contract agreement was part of a clear and proper strategy and agreed framework to achieve long-term solutions for player retention in Wales; and guard against any quick fix, ad-hoc action.

No overall framework has been agreed between the WRU and Regions, so no agreement to play centrally contracted players in the Regions currently exists.

As concluded by PWC, the Regions do not believe a central contract structure alone is the answer to the challenges facing the professional game in Wales today or in the future – there is a much wider picture and more pressing issues to address.

Over the entire time of options being tabled, the WRU has resolutely refused to undertake any discussion, of any option, beyond the absolute conditions that the cost of any National Contract must be deducted from the Region's existing income; and that the Regions must agree to sign the extension option to the previous Participation Agreement.

The Regions therefore cannot understand how, or why, the WRU have now completely reversed their stance in just weeks.

It is also important to make clear that the national contract announcement was made the day before the Regions were due to respond to the WRU's recent proposal of a new Operating Agreement. The news arrived whilst the Regions were attempting to discuss and agree the fundamental principles on which any new agreement should be based.

The critically urgent priority remains the immediate confirmation of committed competition platforms and revenues for next season, to enable key commercial activity including fixture lists, season tickets and sponsor agreements to be delivered across the four Regional businesses.

This is the only outcome that will remove uncertainty for more than 400 professional, semi-pro and development players in Wales, together with coaching and regional staff and the passionate and dedicated supporters, sponsors and business partners that support the Regional game week in, week out.

Regional Rugby Wales outlined its concerns to the Welsh Rugby Union in a letter to the governing body earlier this week.