After more than a decade of relative calm, Welsh rugby has once again been plunged into chaos and savage infighting after a plan to cull a franchise was apparently leaked.
A report commissioned by the Welsh Rugby Union (WRU) from Oakwell Sports Advisory, known as the Umbers Report, has recommended three professional teams as the way forward for a cash-strapped union, with either of the Ospreys or the Dragons to be cut, or the Ospreys merged with the Scarlets.
The regions have all posted financial losses on the back of the Covid pandemic and are also burdened with a £20m loan debt taken out on their behalf by the WRU during the pandemic.
All four have been clamouring for more funding and a more organised player pathway model recently, with their opinions having been canvassed as a part of the report.
The equity from CVC has been invested by the WRU in longer-term capital projects, but there is disquiet as to why more is not trickling down to the regions to ease the burden, after a season in which both they and the national team have seriously under-performed.
Cutting a region would apparently save in the vicinity of £8m, and while the region to be cut has not been explicitly named, the WRU-owned Dragons are by some distance the most likely, while the Ospreys could suffer by dint of not owning their own ground.
“Decisions haven’t been taken on any of this,” said an unnamed union official to the Western Mail.
“All the Oakwell report is saying is that there isn’t quite enough money in the game at the moment to sustain four professional clubs in this manner. Really, what that means is we need more investment. The challenge, of course, is to find that investment. No-one is saying it’s easy, but the regions are commercial businesses.”
But both the Dragons and the Ospreys have released terse and confrontational statements, while at club level, there has been a savage attack on the union by Pontypool after their league season was curtailed because of an unfulfilled fixture. The WRU’s proposal to reduce the number of clubs in its Premiership has not gone down well either.
Dragons chairman David Buttress posted on social media: “Worrying is a rubbish waste of time, fighting, believing, building, backing ourselves and sticking together is what I will spend my energy on. We have a long way to go together yet.
“Winston said it well: ‘Never give in. Never give in. Never, never, never, never–in nothing, great or small, large or petty–never give in, except to convictions of honour and good sense. Never yield to force’.”
“Losing a region isn’t the answer as it would impact on the Wales team because player numbers would be reduced,” said another, also unnamed, senior Welsh rugby person (few people in these situations reveal their names in Wales).
“And how are regional supporters supposed to feel today? All the professional teams are trying to sell season tickets, yet they are now doing so with supporters worried their team might not be in existence the season after next.
“Supporters deserve better and so does Welsh rugby. The regions also have to attract more investment — we know that. But there needs to be some thought given to the financing of the overall game as well.”
Fans, by and large, have reacted with rage, and while the regions have sought to reassure fans that the proposal is just that, a proposal fans, regions, coaches and administrators alike are all, more than anything else, angry that this is out in the open prematurely.
“Aren’t we all weary of not having a strategy? I think that nips everything in the bud if someone gave a clear direction of travel and the direction Wales and the regions are going,” said Dragons coach Dean Ryan.
“As I said if you leave that in the open for a long period of time and nothing happens then we’re left with an environment where everyone speculates.”
For many, it brings back memories of the 2003 disbandment of the Celtic Warriors which left international hooker Mefin Davies clubless and had Gareth Thomas later writing that the WRU had reduced the players to ‘pieces of meat’.
But with the Welsh soccer team enjoying a period of relative success, fans have been draining away from the national sport in the principality. Welsh rugby is looking increasingly fractured; it remains to be seen how it can be rescued.