29 October 2017 / Club News

With Welsh rugby in perpetual 'crisis', strength of opinion continues to thrive.

Welsh rugby evokes strong emotions among its supporters. A working man’s game, it’s a sport that attracts fans with strong and often hostile opinions. Browsing through the debates on Twitter, you’d be struck by the cynicisms and sensitivities of rugby fans, and taken aback by the tribal loyalties. An outsider would be forgiven for thinking that however much the WRU aims to please fans, it often ends up satisfying nobody.


Loyalties run deep. Whether a club, region or national side, supporters want the best for their team and struggle to empathise with opposing viewpoints. Twitter attracts the keyboard warriors and the ‘debates’ sometimes suggest that Welsh rugby is off to hell in a handcart.


But one thing most Welsh-based rugby supporters agree upon is a desire for two things: for the club (or region) they support to be successful and for the national side to be successful. The two aren’t always mutually inclusive, particularly at regional level. But most fans want their club and the Welsh team to do well.


From my viewpoint, the key to a thriving Welsh game is good players and developing more of them. Among a small population, we need to cast as wide a net as possible. It’s unarguable that a thriving junior system in Wales will increase participation, in turn boosting player numbers at community clubs and ultimately providing a wider player base for parent regions. More good Welsh players at professional regions should enhance the national squad.


The rugby player pathway in Wales is simple. A good player can progress one of two ways. He can progress from a community club to a regional academy and on to a region. Or, he can progress from the community game to a Premiership club and then on to a region.


Developing players is one thing, but finance complicates the search for success at regional level. This year the WRU took control of the Dragons while it is rumoured that the Blues and the Scarlets face financial difficulties. Without private investment, Welsh regions are struggling to compete against better financed regions in Ireland, England and France. Less money at regional level means fewer overseas stars. Fewer stars to weaker sides and less income. It is a troubling financial time for the professional game in Wales, and without extra money home grown talent is the only option.


Within the financial constraints, the WRU have tried to construct a player pathway that promotes the best young talents. New Zealand, as ever, provide the model to envy. The story of Dave Rennie’s Highlanders, who won the Rugby Championship win with a side full of forwards nobody had heard of, shows that local talent and good coaching can prevail at even the highest of levels.


There are parallels between the challenges Penallta face and those faced by the Welsh regions. We lose our best players to rival clubs who pay. We punch above our weight to be competitive. We live on a perpetual hamster wheel: producing, developing, losing and reproducing players. Our junior section is the gift that keeps on giving, but with around 20 Penallta players now at Premiership and regional level, we are digging deeper than ever before.


More hard work goes in at our club than is sometimes credited. We didn’t find success just by getting lucky. We strive to demonstrate that a thriving junior section, club-loyalty and quality coaching can combine to trump financial deficiencies. For us, the lack of money has been a blessing. There is nothing complicated at Penallta. No arguments over payment. No threat to a young player of being shunted aside for a paid-player from elsewhere. No spivs or mercenaries. No politics. The players are here because they are happy to be.


I’ve been involved with Penallta for over twenty years and like other fans, my opinions have put me in hot water. I have some ideas on how the pathway should be run. I still coach. I don’t care about personal ambition. I care about producing players and the sustainability of community rugby clubs. I believe clubs do more than just provide a platform for rugby participation. They are important social hubs, they do enormous good for young people. The loss of every community club should be a dagger blow to the game in Wales. If I have one criticism of the WRU it is that too much focus has been placed on non-player-producing clubs at the expense of those who running age grade sides. The indifference to which the collapse of village clubs is met is worrying. Fewer clubs in Wales means fewer players. Wales can’t afford fewer players.


Penallta play at a level that suits us. We are financially solvent. We still compete handsomely on and off the field. Importantly, our youth boys can compete at senior level without being overawed. Our system works. We run 14 sides at junior and senior level. We are great believers in identifying and exposing young players as early as possible. We believe in inventive coaching. Few clubs will have as many 21 year olds with 50 senior appearances under their belts as we have. We have no ambition to progress to Premiership level. We feel we do a good job at running a community rugby club in a challenging environment. But the pathway system often feels weighted against us.


So in an effort to ensure the Welsh rugby pathway is sustainable, from a partisan Penallta perspective, here are some changes I’d make to the game.


Youth Rugby


  • Cut youth rugby catchment age to two years (Under 17s and Under 18s only)
  • Each youth side allowed to permit 4 x Under 19 players from their senior section into their youth side each game
  • The Under 19s can only permit within their registered club
  • Junior players aged 15, deemed strong enough to play and with signed parental permission, should be allowed to play youth rugby
  • All community clubs should be encouraged and helped to run age grade rugby sides


Academy Players


  • Academy Players should be loaned ONLY to a designated Premiership club or their former club. They should not be loaned or encouraged to play at alien clubs.
  • Academy Players should be encouraged (not dissuaded) by academy coaches to play for their former youth or senior side to develop their leadership abilities/exposure to different challenges, rather than ‘resting’ or not playing at all
  • Academy coaches should have a 50/50 obligation to parent region and producer-club, to avoid club and player disenfranchisement


2nd Team Community Club Rugby


  • All clubs should be encouraged to run a 2nd team
  • With the WRU player registration rules for 1st and 2nd team players now in place, an official Welsh 2nd Team Cup would be desirable



1st Team Community Club Rugby


  • A new Cup competition should be introduced for Championship sides, creating four competitions with Principality Stadium finals: National Cup, National Trophy, National Plate and National Bowl. Four finals played over two consecutive days.
  • Community club rugby should be strictly amateur unless ALL WRU funding and insurance is relinquished. Any club paying players must inform the WRU and enter special ‘semi-professional’ status
  •  The WRU has a duty to inform HMRC when an affiliated community club enters semi-professional status, so that no player payments are ‘off books’.
  • Any club caught paying players whilst receiving WRU subsidies, either directly, or through sponsorship, should be demoted to their lowest regional division. Zero tolerance should apply


Premiership (Semi Professional Rugby)


  • The WRU should end ring-fencing at the end of this season.
  • The WRU should fund Premiership clubs at the same flat, ‘subsidy-per-side’ rate as all the other community clubs.
  • Premiership clubs should be encouraged to be self-sufficient and cover player-payment through private funding/sponsorship
  • The WRU should continue to see the Premiership as a development arena, for the best young prospects, and relax the criteria barriers for aspiring clubs
  • Community rugby clubs should be encouraged to push their players to Academy or Premiership level
  • If a Premiership club signs a player directly from a community club, the WRU – from savings made from no longer funding Premiership clubs – should pay a seasonal payment (per player) of £1500 to the community club, for investment back into age-grade rugby


I support player payment provided it is via private money and legally declared. I support the need to retain the Premiership as a semi-professional arena. It should be a league designed to expose young players and prepare them for regional rugby. We should move into an era where the clubs competing in the Premiership are the ones who can either a) afford it without WRU help or b) produce enough home grown players to compete in it.


We should put an end to the notion that Premiership clubs should retain their status by dint of history and entitlement. History, vanity and old-boys networks should count for nothing against viability and sustainability. It is no secret that some Premiership clubs are struggling to survive financially. They must remember that, like community clubs, they are not entitled to their status. The WRU has no obligation to subsidise a club’s status through funding. As it stands, WRU subsidy money is being recycled by Premiership clubs to pay for the best players from community clubs. We currently have a player market where players who have no prospect of developing to regional level are receiving substantial wages. The WRU have sleepwalked to an invidious position where historic clubs could become extinct without their help. Is it meritocratic or in the interests of Welsh rugby for this to be happening? If clubs want to pay players then fine, but it should not be provided by the WRU. WRU money should benefit all stakeholders, and be reserved for development.


There are 300 rugby clubs in Wales. If the WRU acted out on what I’ve suggested above, I’d bet the vast majority of clubs would support it. The entitled few who rely on the intravenous drip of WRU funding won't. But the WRU needs to decide if it is for the many, or the few.


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