As we go into the festive derbies for 2022, rugby in Wales is surrounded by a dark cloud and these fixtures don’t seem to have the same hwyl with supporters that they would have had pre-covid. With no crowds allowed during the last two festive periods, I strongly believed at the start of this season how great it will be to see full grounds and experience that special atmosphere we haven’t been able to enjoy in recent times.
For me there has been a combination of factors that have contributed to this dark cloud but the sad reality of the situation is that we have been here before, and much of this in fighting could have been avoided, had those in charge learned lessons from their predecessors. Casting minds back to Boxing Day 2013, supporters from all four regional sides took part in the “Protect our game” protests, aimed squarely at the WRU and CEO at the time Roger Lewis. The Participation Agreement that covered player release and distribution of payments could not be agreed and we were seeing an exodus of players to England and France, all surrounded by uncertainty regarding competition structures (Regional rugby fans protest ahead of Boxing Day derbies – Wales Online).
Fast forward to 2022 and we finally have a new 6-year agreement on the table, that has taken over 12 months of time-consuming negotiation between PRB members and for those involved detracting from the day to day running of the four professional clubs.
The impact of these negotiations is felt by everyone across the game as weekly speculation about the future of the game in Wales leaks into the press causing immeasurable frustration and anger for everyone employed within Welsh Rugby but also the many supporters that see rugby as so much more than the 80 minutes on the field each week. The apathy and frustration is clear to see, with dwindling crowds that only play into the hands of the WRU, and one can only assume by this point the master plan is to slow play finalising the agreement until one or more professional clubs goes bust. Otherwise, you have to question the competence of Steve Phillips to fulfill the role of WRU CEO.
The superficial result of this new agreement will be that we have some financial certainty until 2028, yet the reality is that the payment for player release to the regions is not of a level that will enable on field success for the clubs without some great financial management off the field, top level coaching and a lot of luck when it comes to developing local talent, recruitment and injuries. The agreement may well provide the ability for clubs to plan beyond the current season and give the ability to keep heads above water, however with the sport in such a volatile place the need within Wales to have effective governance and leadership to provide agility in times of change, combined with trust and accountability between all five parties is absolutely paramount, something that is clearly lacking on all fronts.
As mentioned, volatility within the sport is a huge issue, as we are surrounded by competition structures that couldn’t be any less supporter friendly and sustainable if they actively tried. A cross hemisphere, pan european league structure that changes almost annually and sees those in charge chasing a commercial global explosion that many are hugely sceptical that it will happen, despite the CVC carrot that’s been dangled. Then take European competition, a structure that had been so successful and settled for several years, blown apart by the need to adapt in Covid and now left as a wreckage in a post covid era. Whilst we used to see the occasional team phoning in a poor performance away from home in the challenge cup, the last two weekends have seen several clubs in both tiers putting out weakened sides and resulting in a product that has increasingly less interest for supporters and broadcasters. I personally went to Parma and the overwhelming reaction from the 70 or so Scarlets fans in attendance was how ridiculous is this situation, playing a South African Currie Cup side from Bloemfontein, in Northern Italy, in front of barely 200 people. I fear the next broadcasting deals for both competitions will only create further financial difficulties for the Welsh professional clubs and beyond. It honestly makes me angry, what professional rugby has become, the short sightedness and inability to learn lessons of the past. What is even more galling is how little those making these decisions in the URC or EPCR seem to understand the sport or care about it, given the blatant disregard to a sustainable, supporter friendly future.
In conclusion, whilst I am only one supporter writing this, with a very small voice as part of Crys 16 Supporters Trust. A voice, which I try to use to represent our members and influence the Scarlets board, I am preaching to the converted. What is needed is for those running the game both within Wales and beyond in the competitions we compete in, to pull their heads out of the sand and engage with supporters to create a long-term sustainable future. If we continue down the current path of mismanagement and penny pinching, there won’t be a professional game in Wales and possibly beyond, for much longer.
As supporters reading this, please get behind your club over the festive period and beyond. Show that you still care, turn up, make noise and don’t let the professional clubs suffer for the mess that’s been created once again.