There’ll be a new European rugby competition next season. We can at least be sure of that, following today’s announcement by English and French clubs that they intend to set up a new elite competition from next season.
It’s no surprise, of course; this one has been brewing for a while. It’s pretty certain that Welsh, Scottish and even Irish rugby administrators were hoping that it would just go away and things would continue on their merry way. But it was never going to be sustainable in the long term. The Anglo-French rugby axis have much deeper pockets than their Celtic counterparts, and that means they call the shots.
You could be forgiven for thinking that the Irish might be the dominant partner in this European consortium, and to some extent they have been, on the field at least. Leinster and Munster have won 5 out of the last 8 Heineken Cups.
Many commentators mistakenly put this down to the supposed strength of the Pro 12 Celtic League. But that’s just wishful thinking. The reason for Munster and Leinster’s European success is that they treat the Pro 12 purely as a development competition. It’s a nursery for their young players. They keep their Irish internationals like Paul O’Connell and Brian O’Driscoll for the Blue Riband European competition. It’s got nothing to do with the Pro 12.
Sure, the academies associated with the Celtic regions have produced a lot of world-class players in the last decade. Just look at Sam Warburton, Leigh Halfpenny and George North. But that’s where it ends. Once they’ve cut their international teeth, they’re sucked up into the Mothership in the Vale of Glamorgan, rarely emerging to grace the field for their regions.
In Ireland and Scotland, there’s no imperative for their regions to make money. Why? Because they’re owned by their respective Unions. In Wales it’s different. Our regions are privately-owned, with the WRU holding shares, but not financial control. This means the Welsh regions have to produce a “product” (a nasty word, but unfortunately this is a nasty world) which makes money.
The Welsh regional product clearly doesn’t make money. The regions are all propped up by sugar Daddies and a meagre subsidy from the Welsh Rugby Union (WRU).
You might be forgiven for assuming that the WRU are sitting on a massive pile of cash. Nearly a decade of success, with the coins rolling in from bumper crowds at the Millennium Stadium, should have left the WRU with a healthy bank balance (have you seen the price of the tickets? The beer? The replica shirts?).
In fact, the WRU still owe Barclays Bank millions of pounds; the loan taken out to pay for the construction of the Millennium Stadium. It nearly bankrupted the WRU in the early 2000s.
But that’s only part of the story. Of course the WRU have to pay off the loan. Apparently it would be financially imprudent to try to re-negotiate the repayment terms.
This mean there’s not much money left over once the bank has been paid. Not much money left for the regions.
How does this affect what’s now happening with the European cup? The problem England and France have isn’t just about money. Of course, they’re annoyed that they’re effectively paying for a competition which includes crap Welsh and Scottish teams. Let’s face it, the Welsh and Scottish regions have done next to bugger-all in Europe since they came into existence. What really annoys the Anglo-French clubs is what they see as the unfairly large proportion of Pro 12 teams in the Heineken Cup. The Pro 12 is a single league, like the Top 14 and the Aviva, so the qualification criteria should be the same. The top 4 teams go up, and that’s it. Maybe the top 5 if one of your teams wins the previous year.
Sounds pretty fair to me. Where does that leave Wales, and why is it much worse for us if the French and English take their ball away?
Here’s how I see it panning out. The European cup needs to be a truly “elite” competition. That means it needs to include only the best teams from Europe. No helping hands to developing regions, and no assumptions that just because your national team is successful, that it follows that your regions will be too (looking at you here, Wales).
Scenario 1. The new European Cup is set up. Ireland quickly join it, and take even less interest in the Pro 12 as it’s not even important for qualification any more. They continue to play their own domestic championship and perhaps under 21 versions of their regions in the Pro 12. That reduces the quality of the Pro 12 even further. Result? Wales lose. A poor product gets even poorer. Wales might be offered a couple of places in the new European Cup, but without a competitive development competition (Pro 12), and more importantly, with limited funds, they don’t stand a cat’s chance in hell of ever winning it.
Scenario 2. Somehow the ERC continues in its current form. This means compromise on the part of the Pro 12 teams. Again, the likely result is even worse for Wales. In a scenario where only the top 4 qualify, on the strength of last season, only one Welsh region would qualify for the elite European competition. If the Irish were helpful and won the Heineken Cup, we might get two places. Again Wales lose.
Whatever happens, if Wales are outside the European tent next season, it looks very very bad.
And what are the WRU doing about it? Precisely bugger all. They’re still banging on about “Gatland’s Law” and how some magical money tree is going to provide the funds so that regions can stop the terminal exodus of our best players to France and England.
In 2011 we were on the brink of being World Champions. In 2012 they wrote us off and we still managed to win the Grand Slam. Even in 2013, we’ve won the Six Nations against the odds and made the Lions roar in Australia.
But still, our domestic game is in a terrible mess, and it appears things are only going to get worse.