If there is one thing that can be guaranteed it is that there is never a dull moment in Welsh rugby and another tumultuous week ended with the Western Mail’s “Rugby Editor” Delme Parfitt openly admonishing the regions for failing to create an affinity with the rugby supporting public.
Today, somewhere in Bath, Sam Burgess will be reflecting on his full debut.
Russell Crowe calls him the ‘sparkly-eyed man’ and fans across the UK and Ireland will have tuned into to see Sam stride onto the Rec like a gladiator. The occasion had been suitably hyped by the British press and the rugby public looked on, spellbound.
Slammin Sam cost Bath £270,000, a fee they were only too happy to pay given Sam’s reputation as the finest rugby league player of his generation. Not even the seemingly superhuman Money Bill Williams could live with him.
How was his debut? Solid and unspectacular. But does it matter? He is already worth his weight in gold to Bath in terms of commercial revenues and represents a resounding statement to Europe that Bath are back in the big league. Burgess is a symbol of their ambition. Ambition that generates interest. Ambition that attracts talent. Talent that is the catalyst for success.
Bath have spent the last few seasons quietly assembling a squad of depth and quality. Gnarly South African Francois Louw arrived followed by the ever reliable Paul James, Rob Webber, Dom Day (transformed), and Henry Thomas. In the backs they signed potential and pace in Kyle Eastmond and Jonathan Joseph, calm, assured talent in George Ford and experience and quality in Gavin Henson and Peter Stringer. And now they have Slammin Sam.
You want the regions to attract crowds, Delme? Then back them. Help them generate interest. This seemingly never ending negativity towards the regional game does them or Welsh rugby no favours whatsoever.
Earlier this week Wayne Pivac openly identified Owen Williams as a player he is hoping to bring back to the region and it is strongly rumoured that Gatland is considering offering him a dual contract. A talented player of rich promise being linked with a move back to one of the regions should be greeted with jubilation.
Instead, Richard Cockerill’s comments regarding dwindling regional crowds were pushed to the fore. Words fail me.
Delme’s article barely drew breath long enough to mention the brutal player drain that has seen the regions stagger through the past 18 months. Welsh rugby’s most iconic symbols and biggest commercial and marketing tools bidding the regions and the nation farewell to head for greener grass and pastures new.
Imagine Swansea City without Ashley Williams, Wilfred Bony, Wayne Routledge and Gylfi Siggurdson. Imagine trying to replace them with academy players.
Where would they be then? That has been the unenviable task of the Welsh regions.
One of the most glaring images of our failure to retain the talent was the much heralded BT Sport partnership that was announced last summer. Which players were there to announce it and to help relaunch a new dawn for Welsh rugby?
Golden boy Leigh Halfpenny or media darling Jamie Roberts? Wales’ global poster boy George North or world renown Jonathan Davies? The lavish locks of Richard Hibbard maybe, or ladies’ man Mike Phillips?
None of them. Because they had all left Wales. Instead the job of promoting the new deal was left to Scott Williams, Taulupe Faletau, Aaron Jarvis (oh sweet Jesus) and Rhys Patchell. Hardly a quartet to engage a supporter already disillusioned and on the periphery of the Welsh game.
I do not mean to denigrate these players. I use them only to highlight the commercial plight of the regional game. Many may scoff and sneer but it is the players that are the stars. The players that are the heroes to old and young alike.
Rugby remains the epitome of a team game yet within those teams it is the ‘sparkly-eyed men’ that make the difference with the key pass, the earth shattering tackle or the dazzling footwork that breaks a game wide open. These are the men that attract support and forge success, identity and belonging.
If you want to see the regional game flourish, Delme, then you need to help promote it. Habitually questioning its purpose and validity only serves to pit rugby fans against each other. Divide and conquer. Or is that what you want?
To go back to Year Zero and begin again would be utterly disastrous. Support is what is needed starting with this weekend and the European fixtures. On Sunday evening I hope to be celebrating wins for all four regions and looking forward to the hype and excitement of a festive schedule packed with parochialism and passion. Affinity begins with hope and hope begins with the ‘sparkly-eyed men’.
If the regions respond over the weekend I wonder if the Cardiff press will do the same?