Welsh rugby fans departing for foreign lands in the professional era of rugby is nothing new. The likes of Colin Charvis (Tarbes), Chris Wyatt (Munster), Rob Howely (Wasps) and Stephen Jones (Clermont), to name a few, all departed our borders in search of a handsome wage when at the back end of their playing careers.
Similarly, players who realised that future opportunities of playing for the national side were becoming increasingly remote also upped sticks – Nicky Robinson (Wasps), his brother Jamie (Agen), Gareth Delve (Melbourne) and Alix Popham (Brive) being some of the higher profile examples.
So, why the alarm at the recent exodus? Perhaps it’s just the sheer number of current internationals in close proximity who are leaving, or have not long left, the regions. Lee Byrne, Mike Phillips and James Hook all departed last season, of course, and come September, Luke Charteris, Gethin Jenkins, Richie Rees, Huw Bennett, Paul James and Aled Brew will be plying their trade on foreign fields.
But a closer look suggests things maybe aren’t so bad as they first appear. All of these players listed are nearer 30 years of age than they are 20, and with the exception of Charteris, Phillips and Jenkins, were not first choice for Wales in 2012.
A positive spin, then, is that these departures offer a great opportunity for Wales’ young players to develop, with the big names no longer limiting their game time. Consider the case of Rhys Webb, the young scrum half who earned a call up to the Wales squad following impressively consistent displays for his region this season, culminating in his first cap as a replacement in the win over Italy in the Six Nations. In an interview earlier this month, Webb said,
“It’s been a tough couple of years at the Ospreys in my position, with the likes of Mike Phillips and Justin Marshall there… They gave me a chance over Mike last season… and I’ve just kept going from there.”
There is a good chance that Webb may have broken through this season anyway, but there can be little doubt that big name departures have given him more chances to shine and to take on greater responsibility, and the player has blossomed as a consequence.
Whilst depth of talent has always been a problem in Wales in the professional era, there are good signs of another talented crop of youngsters on the horizon. In his first full season, Scarlets 21 year old full-back, Liam Williams, was named the region’s players’ player of the year, as well as the LV=Cup Breakthrough Player ahead of fellow-nominated Welshmen Matthew Morgan of the Ospreys and 21 year old Scarlets centre Adam Warren. Likewise, Harry Robinson has been pulling up trees at the Blues, drawing favourable comparisons with namesake and former England pro Jason Robinson by Welsh coach Warren Gatland.
Also, let’s remember that the young players who shone at the World Cup, such as Faletau, Warburton, Priestland and Lydiate, will still be pulling on Welsh regions’ jerseys come September. As will George North and Alex Cuthbert who, most of us will confess, we hadn’t even heard of 18 months ago. And who’s to say that another few young Welsh gems won’t be unearthed in the coming season too.
Suddenly, things don’t seem so bad. Heineken Cup anyone?