So, another worrying turn in the continuing battle between the Welsh Rugby Union (WRU) and the four organisations it still seems intent on bringing to heel – the professional teams represented collectively by Regional Rugby Wales (RRW). Weeks of quiet on the thorny issue of central contracts are threatening to spark into life over the WRUs apparent decision to compete with the Ospreys for the signature of tight-head prop Adam Jones.
The four professional teams have long stated that they have agreed that,
Their united opposition to central contracts would remain unless the concept formed “part of a clear and proper strategy and agreed framework to achieve long-term solutions for player retention in Wales; and guard against any quick fix, ad-hoc action.”
So when Wales and Lions captain Sam Warburton signed a central contract with the WRU on 25 January , on the apparent understanding that he would be placed with his home team the Cardiff Blues, it raised the odd eyebrow.
Defending his decision to put the WRU in direct competition with a Welsh region for the signature of the Welsh captain, WRU CEO Roger Lewis suggested RRW’s opposition to central contracts was nothing more than a bit of playing to the gallery.
He stated, pretty explicitly, that the four professional teams had approached him and said,
“They were unable to contract six players. They needed assistance and help with Jonathan Davies, Rhys Priestland, Alun Wyn Jones, Adam Jones, Leigh Halfpenny and Sam Warburton. That’s where it all began and then when the participation agreement wasn’t signed by December 31st we put our minds to it… and thought how on earth can we keep players in Wales?”
Lewis claimed that his hand had been forced by Leigh Halfpenny’s decision to leave Wales altogether and sign for Toulon. Warburton’s agent, Derwyn Jones, was wheeled out to hint that the WRU hadn’t competed with Cardiff at all, but had actually saved Warburton for the nation.
Apparently, the WRU’s offer of a contract led the national captain to
“Twice rejecting £700,000-a-year offers from big-spending French clubs. It’s understood he had already turned down one such bid from Stade Francais and last week he rejected another from Toulon after the European champions came back in for him.”
All very laudable, I’m sure. Much of the recent success of the national team has been built on a Partnership Agreement which has kept the bulk of Wales’ international class players at home, and provided national team coach Warren Gatland with access to these players in excess of anything afforded most of his equivalents in the northern hemisphere. Nobody would corroborate Derwyn’s story, obviously, and nobody dug too deeply into it.
Then Scott Williams, Alun Wyn Jones and Rhys Priestland signed for their Regions, rejecting the WRU’s central contracts. Everything pointed to Adam Jones, the last of the six, signing for the Ospreys. Then it all went quiet. A person who is (astonishingly enough) employed by the Western Mail started talking about Jones signing a central contract and playing for the Dragons. Their coach Lyn Jones, a reliable source whenever stories of Ospreys players signing for the Dragons rear their heads, said yesterday that Adam was very close to signing a central contract as negotiations with the Ospreys had “stalled.”
Today (9 April), Adam Jones’ region, the Ospreys, spoke to the Evening Post. The region’s Chief Executive Andrew Hore accused the WRU of
“Continuing to negotiate with Adam Jones and breaking a pledge that they would not compete with them for his signature. We received email confirmation from the Welsh Rugby Union on February 12 that they would not compete with us to sign Adam.”
“We subsequently discovered they were continuing to negotiate with him and have offered him considerably more.”
So that would seem to be pretty clear. The WRU have maybe been less than honest. Perhaps. Well, who knows. I trust them implicitly, of course, but others might not.
Interestingly, and hilariously, Wales’ foremost fearless purveyor of facts (given to him by the WRU) Andy Howell has started pushing a line that I confess to having missed: Wales coach Warren Gatland paved the way for the WRU competing with the Regions last December:
“What happens to players who are not wanted by the Regions and go to France or England but who are good enough for the national team? Do you just discard them? There needs to be a separate group of people who decide on what a fair market value is for players so they aren’t taken advantage of by the Regions potentially offering them, say £100,000 less because they know that player is desperate to play for Wales and doesn’t want to leave the country because he knows he won’t be selected.”
Never one to miss out on an opportunity for a spot of shameless toadying, Howell piles in:
“Say, for example, the Ospreys were only offering Adam £100,000 a year because they knew he was intent on staying in Wales, would it be fair? Not in my opinion because he’s clearly worth much more. I agree with Gatland, an independent panel would need to be formed to decide the market value of players if Gatland’s law was to be enforced, which I believe it should.”
If the general narrative of today’s shambles is to be believed, it looks as though that independent panel has been formed. I wonder who’s on it? Whatever, we at least know that the six players weren’t wanted by their Regions, despite three of them rejecting central contracts and, er… signing for those Regions.
So it seems that, contrary to an email sent by the WRU to the Ospreys in February, the WRU (or an independent panel, natch) have decided that it’s perfectly acceptable to muscle in and compete with Welsh Regions for players.
The question we should be asking is, “Why?”
Why is it acceptable for the WRU to compete with Welsh Regions for players? What purpose does it serve? I suppose the WRU would argue that keeps players in Wales. Except it doesn’t, really, because it seems likely that both Sam Warburton and Adam Jones would have stayed here anyway.
Does it make better use of the game’s finances? No, because the WRUs actions are driving up the cost of Welsh players, and it’s costing nobody but themselves, the Regions and the Welsh game at large. But it is a handy little wedge which can be used to annoy the Regions and maybe create a few divisions.
It is irresponsible, it is underhand, it is duplicitous. In short, it is entirely consistent with the behaviour of the WRU and Roger Lewis. We are fools for expecting anything better.