Once again the future of Welsh club and regional rugby has come into question after comments by Andrew Hore, who has recently announced his move from Ospreys to become the CEO of the Waratahs, suggesting that the Welsh regions should join Super Rugby. This seemingly outlandish statement has caused a bit of a stir with the ever passionate but sometimes sensitive Welsh Rugby public, bringing up the old but valid arguments of tradition and money and generally creating a bit of a panic as to where Welsh rugby is heading at the domestic level. It’s inevitable that when any sort of large scale change is suggested, all sorts of ideas come out of the woodwork and disagreements are had, so I thought I’d take a look at the four most popular ideas for change that involve the Welsh regions or clubs.
This is idea much loved by the traditionalists, and it’s easy to see why. Twelve to sixteen professional Welsh clubs all going at it within a contained Welsh ecosystem, promotion and relegation to and from the Championship and all the juicy old rivalries that fizzled out at the dawn of professionalism. Away support would be fantastic too, only having to travel around South/Mid Wales with the occasional trip up north is a very attractive prospect. Not only that, but it would finally give the WRU enough space to finally put in place a system like the English and Kiwis have, meaning that playing for Ebbw Vale might be a more attractive prospect for a young Welsh star than the glamour of Toulon and the like.
Unfortunately, as appealing as that system may sound, it is flawed from the very start. The WRU can barely afford to partially fund four professional teams, let alone twelve or sixteen. Secondly there’s the issue of stadiums/grounds. Let’s say we professionalise the 16 team Premiership that will be coming into effect next season, less than half of the grounds are of a size that you’d expect a professional team to play in. Bargoed RFC were refused promotion to the Premiership last season because they don’t have enough seats. A lot of money would have to go into either building or expanding current grounds. Even more would have to go into improving the state of the pitches, have a look the highlights from Ponty vs Merthyr a few days ago, not a spot of green to be found. You also have to remember that with this system would come with the abolition of the Regions, welcome news to some I’d imagine but would leave the Irish, Scottish and Italian teams playing in a depleted Pro 8.
Ultimately this idea just is not feasible, and won’t be for the foreseeable future. Any other idea that we look at will have keep the regions as they are, and have them kept as a separate entity to the Welsh league system.
This is something I’d consider to be the next best thing after a professional Welsh Premiership, you get the contained Anglo-Welsh ecosystem with promotion and relegation, short trips for away fans and high level of rugby along with the ability to only have to fund four Welsh professional teams. The arguments for this way are very similar to the previous, especially with the west country/south Welsh rivalries that Welsh and English fans alike adore. Financially this would be more than plausible, and would probably end up being more profitable for the regions than the Pro 12 is.
However there is the inescapable issue of formatting. This wasn’t a problem with the Welsh premiership as the regions wouldn’t be involved and all the clubs are in the same boat regarding relegation and promotion. With the Welsh regions joining the English Premiership, we run into a brick wall. Do we allow the regions to be relegated? Such a thing isn’t beyond the realms of possibility but would be ultimately fatal to Welsh rugby considering the condensed population of Welsh internationals playing for the regions. If Cardiff Blues were relegated you’d have the likes of Sam Warburton, Gethin Jenkins, Gareth Anscombe, Alex Cuthbert and Cory Allen either playing well below their standards or moving on to teams outside of Wales, both of which are unacceptable.
So let’s say in this hypothetical Anglo-Welsh Premiership that the Welsh regions are exempt from relegation, there could be a situation in the team that’s fifth from the bottom ends up being sent down. There’s also the issue of adding or replacing, do we create a 16 team Premiership with the Welsh regions or do we chuck away four English ones and keep it as a twelve team system? If we do, which teams go down? As it stands Bath, Worcester, Newcastle and London Irish would be the ones asked to make way. We again also have the problem of leaving Irish, Scottish and Italian teams in the dirt.
While this way of doing things is a lot more easy and financially viable from a Welsh point of view, it just isn’t fair on the English teams already competing in the top flight, no matter how it gets structured. For a proper change that would be affordable and fair to the teams of other nations, there would need a to be a solution that solves the same problems for everyone.
European Super League
According to a lot of people this would be a solution that solves the same problems for everyone. In the big picture, it would be a league similar to Super Rugby in that it would contain the top professional teams from the Six Nations and have them all compete together in a competition of conferences and wild cards and play offs and all that confusing but exciting Southern Hemisphere loveliness. There would even be less matches meaning less stress about being tired from International matches etc.
The complicated thing is that this big picture, while very pleasing to the eye, is actually a puzzle that’s made up of many pieces and some of them may be missing from the box. This system is fantastic for the Pro 12 teams who already have franchises and clubs jam packed with their countries superstars so there would be no change for the Welsh, Irish, Scottish and Italian teams. The main resistance will come from England and France, ever causing issues with their large amounts of money and wide player base, who won’t want to have to sacrifice teams from their home grown competitions. You can see where they’re coming from, as soon as they take five or six teams from their top flight and move them to a new elite competition, the Aviva Premiership and Top 14 become a side show and all of a sudden a lot of teams lose a lot of money and support.
There are a few solutions to this, none of which will ever be used but still it’s fun to talk about it. They could follow the path of the Welsh and Irish and creates regions/provinces/franchises to compete in the ESL and simply draw the best players from the Premiership clubs in that region. They could also just add all twelve and fourteen teams to the league and create a giant NFL style competition with divisions and such to spread the numbers a bit, culminating in a big fat European Superbowl. Or perhaps more sensibly, they could take the top six performing teams from their domestic competition and add them in. Perhaps allowing for some promotion and relegation every few years to keep things exciting.
This is probably the most realistic answer to the problem of not just the future of Welsh domestic Rugby, but European rugby as a whole. It would mean a lot of drastic change though, which is something that European rugby historically has not adjusted well to. If this does happen, it would mean years of careful planning and discussion between the unions and clubs. However it’s always good to end on a light note, so let’s have a little bit of fun and talk about the frankly insane fourth option.
Welsh Super Rugby Teams
As unbelievable as the idea may sound, it’s not quite beyond the realms of possibility so it seems fair to discuss it. As far as I’m aware, the prevailing idea would be to add the four Welsh regions to the Super Rugby competition. A league that already spans the Pacific and Atlantic oceans, crosses the equator and holds up a middle finger to time zones would now be adding fifth continent and four more teams and become larger in team numbers than the English Premier League in football, a first for professional Rugby.
In order to make this acid trip of an idea in any way doable, the regions would have to join the South African conference as it’s the closest destination and the time zones are more or less the same. I won’t pretend to understand exactly how Super Rugby works at the moment because I’m not even 100% the tournament organisers do, but I believe this would mean Welsh teams play mainly South African teams with the occasional Kiwi/Aussie/Japanese/Argentinian team thrown in for fun.
What can’t be argued is that the standard of rugby would increase for the regions, which can only be a good thing. Getting regular game time against top South African teams would be a huge boost for the national team too. One question that has to be asked though is how many people will actually turn up to watch these matches? I can’t imagine the average Scarlets fans care too much about watching their team play the Sharks and attendances in South Africa are low enough as it is without their fans being told they now have to watch the Newport Gwent Dragons. It all might be worth it for the occasional game against the Chiefs or Waratahs but the travel distances alone would suck a lot of fun out of it for the teams. Not to mention the money the WRU would have to shell out for the flights.
While it seems like this is a good idea on the surface, the deeper you dig the more you find it’s something that just wouldn’t work, especially when there are much more viable options for both the Welsh regions and Super Rugby teams elsewhere.
For the future of Welsh and European domestic rugby alike to be a successful, entertaining and profitable one there needs to be radical, fundamental change right down to the roots. Change that has already begun in Ireland and Wales but needs to be uniform throughout Europe to work properly, we can’t hope to move forward together when the basis of our domestic rugby is so drastically different from one another. As for the Welsh regions specifically, all they can do right now is focus on the present. Start winning games, start becoming regulars in the pro 12 playoffs and Champions Cup finals, start getting bigger crowds and better results and build a new legacy the same way the amateur clubs did all those years ago and maybe then we can hope for a better future.
Please feel free to post any ideas on new or expanded competition ideas for European domestic rugby in the comments, we’d love to hear your views.