Planet Rugby

Loose Pass

01st January 2013 15:05

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New Year s Fireworks

Happy 2013 from Planet Rugby!

This week we will mostly be concerning ourselves with Wales, Sale, and the coming year...

As if November's defeats and a steady stream of players departing to the uncertain availability schedules across the channel weren't sign enough, CEO Roger Lewis' hint at the cutting of another Welsh region la Celtic Dragons eight years ago is the surest sign yet that 2013 might be a miserable year for Welsh rugby.

It would be a last-ditch resort, but that Lewis is even contemplating the move is indicative of how uneasily the franchise concept has sat in the principality.

Money is tight, possibly even more so now that the star players are drifting away, taking the spectators willing to part with a limited supply of pounds to watch with them. The national side is struggling for continuity and will do so a lot more with the cream of the internationals playing in a very different league.

Uncertainty over the Heineken Cup, especially the likelihood that Welsh participation is set to dip if the merit-based qualification reforms are pushed through, is creating a deep insecurity in the minds of the budget-makers, who are unable to create scenarios where the best players might earn as well as they could in France. Thus the players go where they are assured of a good wage, a simple economic reality.

Money rules. The current chain of events happened in Scotland and we all know in which direction that has gone.

The RaboDirect Pro 12 has not offered a suitable preparatory platform upon which international players feel themselves able to build for their greater aspirations. Nor, despite the best efforts of those promoting it, has it been a commercial success, relative to the Aviva Premiership and Top 14 - which is starting to eclipse soccer as France's most popular sport according to reports a couple of weeks ago. Nor has it proved to be a breeding ground for a new generation of players. Nobody knows what will happen to the Welsh scrum when Adam Jones and Gethin Jenkins are gone, but everybody knows it will not be good.

The relative success of the Premiership soccer teams in Wales - it looks more and more as though both Cardiff and Swansea will be playing in the Premier League next season - has also had an effect. While rugby is still the national sport, soccer is not all that far behind. People follow success, especially in a nation state feeling recession hard and depending on the government of their biggest sporting rivals to pull it out.

Cardiff... Swansea... there's the rub really. Cities, not franchises. Local identities, not diluted ones. Tribes with history, not uneasy amalgams between tribes with individual tribal history consigned to fond memories.

It seems to matter not a jot in soccer that half of the Swansea soccer team is foreign - it might not matter to rugby fans if many of their teams' players were raised abroad or in the neighbouring valley rather than in their own city, so long as they could support their town's team.

The Dragons are the franchise most likely to be slain, so to speak, leaving active teams in Cardiff, Swansea and Llanelli. If the Dragons are to disappear from the map, it night behoove the powers that be to be equally as merciless with the naming of the remaining teams and insist that they return to being actively named after the places they play in, even to the extent that those three teams disappear from the Welsh Premiership.

A far-fetched idea. But then if you had suggested that professional rugby would look like a sick and dying sport in Wales a couple of years ago, you'd have called that far-fetched too.

The Welsh administrators are not renowned for pulling together in a crisis or taking individual hits to help the greater cause, but some sacrifice, teamwork and progressive thinking is very much needed if Welsh rugby is to avoid a Scottish slide over the next couple of years.

2012 lurches to a close for Sale as well, with the cracks becoming more and more evident. The social media lady is gone, having referred to frustrated fans as "absolute f***wits" on facebook. Stupid, yes, but not something you do unless you are deeply unhappy for some reason.

Now John Mitchell is gone almost as soon as he arrived, leaving the coaching post open once again.

Mitchell cited 'personal reasons' for his departure, which does not lead really lend itself as a reason to fans who were hoping that Friday's win over Worcester might be the start of a Mitchell-led revival. Sale have officially stated that Mitchell, who has consultancy and punditry obligations in South Africa for the Super 15 was only ever a short-term solution, also not a concept that fans might be satisfied with given the club's tos and fros this season.

Either way, it's hardly the steady hand of continuity that players fighting uncertainty and relegation need. Sale's first move for 2013 has to be a positive one.

But leaving aside the unitary problems, the sport is shaping up for a belting year. We'll have a Six Nations chock-full of players scrapping against counterparts for Lions spots. The Heineken Cup has been tight, but the fourth round saw teams really hitting their straps, and the tournament is building to quite a climax.

A Lions year is always a special year, but after three series defeats in a row, the tourists are hungry for win and sense that Australia might be there for the taking this time.

Once the Wallabies emerge from that, they'll be straight into the Rugby Championship slog, one still waiting for Argentina's first win but which is now the bona fide best tournament in the world in terms of quality.

Then Europe starts again... a new Heineken Cup in whatever format the suits decide for us...a raft of November tantalisers... it isn't going to stop for 12 months. Would we have it any other way? Happy 2013!

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