Paul Williams: Black & White Column

Adam Redmond
07 March 2019

Share this article

Each game week Paul Williams ‘Black & White’ column will take a look around the world of the Guinness PRO14. Known for his contributions to Rugby World, his obsession for the game and his notorious tennis elbow, Paul will bring his unique takes on rugby to pro14rugby.org. For more make sure to follow him on Twitter  @thepaulwilliams


Growing Pains Await as Regional Rugby Aims to Run with the Thoroughbreds 

Paul Williams is an independent columnist for www.pro14rugby.org and the views expressed in his columns are his (who else would they be?) and not those of PRO14 Rugby.

The title of this column couldn’t be less apt this week. There is never anything black and white in Welsh rugby. Excluding the relative success of the national team over the past 15 years, club and regional rugby in Wales has been a massive grey mess since the game went professional.

Every four to five years, some unfortunate individuals must untangle what is tantamount to 150 pairs of headphone cables thrown into a tumble dryer. The professional game in Wales is desperate for a clear road map for everyone to follow and it’s hard to think of any other Tier One nation that’s in the same situation.

Few, if any, top rugby nations managed the transition to professional rugby with ease, but the truth is, the Welsh rugby landscape couldn’t handle professionalism even before it became professional. In the 80’s and 90’s, it was rugby league that ripped the club game apart.

The first regional structure in 2003, initially failed with the collapse of the Celtic Warriors and the success of the remaining teams has witnessed many highs and lows.

The Ospreys had promising spells which included four Championship titles between the Celtic League and the old PRO12. The Scarlets have bagged two titles themselves and created some positivity with their daring style of play but neither team has ever reached a European final. The Cardiff Blues have never really established themselves a consistent contender domestically despite claiming two Challenge Cups over the past decade.

What fans yearn for is teams that can make an impact on the biggest days in the European Cup as well as in the Guinness PRO14, but none of the regions have ever threatened to headline those gala finales on the continental stage.

So, what do we want rugby in Wales to be? Are we happy being a rugby version of Scandinavian football, where a solid national team is achievable, but the club game fails to truly capture the imagination? Because at the moment, that is where the game in Wales sits. A good national team, but with no hope of ever fielding a squad that can cope with Saracens or Leinster, in the long-term.

The reality is that Wales can’t afford four fully-funded professional rugby teams. The fact that all four of the teams exist in such a small geographic space makes perfect sense historically, but very little sense commercially. We all know about the history of Swansea, Neath, Llanelli, Newport, Cardiff, Pontypridd and Pontypool etc.

However, commercially, the geographical spacing of the regions is from an age gone by and pro sport doesn’t care what happened yesterday; it only cares for what happens tomorrow. If something doesn’t change now who knows where we could be in 10 or 20 years time.

Weirdly, this whole mess isn’t even a result of the actions of those in Wales, it is partly a result of outside forces. The commercial pressures driving up player salaries are exerted by France, England and Japan, and they have already forced the Australian Rugby Union into a restructure to ensure they can retain their best players. The same action must happen in Wales.

Welsh supporters dream of their sides having the type of funding and player budgets that the top teams in Europe do, but if they want to see that come true, some are going to have to go through a nightmare.

If you’re an Ospreys fan right now you’ll feel like that’s what’s ahead, make no mistake about it.

We should always remember that this is all in a sporting context, and that no-one has died, or declared war.

With the merger off the cards between Ospreys and Scarlets, the aftermath has been heated but with one team fighting for their very future that’s how it can be. But even the idea of merging the two regions from West Wales was tough for many to consider – would anyone ever ask Leinster and Munster or Glasgow Warriors and Edinburgh to join forces?

It’s been a week that some say could only happen in Wales. One that has already seen the start of the nightmare. It appeared Scarlets and Ospreys were set to merge only for it to be called off at short notice, some sharp words have been said and the Ospreys chairman has resigned. The newly formed Professional Rugby Board, in charge of the whole process to find a new way forward for regional rugby on under the Project Reset banner, has been under fire along with the WRU.

It has also been claimed by Scarlets that it was the Ospreys themselves who were keen on merging with either the Cardiff Blues, or the Scarlets, and it was not an issue forced by the WRU. This has all been followed by more tough talk from Ospreys’ incoming chairman. How do you digest that? There aren’t enough Rennies in the northern hemisphere to make this easy to swallow.

The difficulty with situations like this is that everyone retreats to their barracks and grabs a weapon. You’re expected to take sides immediately. You’re either for it, or against. You either hate the Ospreys or despise the Scarlets. You either love the WRU or you want to fire-bomb head office. You’re either getting hate-fueled DMs on Twitter, or you’re sending them. You’re either with us, or against us.

But it’s far more complicated than that. I was born and bred in Swansea – Gowerton to be precise. I supported Swansea RFC as a boy, then the Ospreys since their inception. I know many of the Ospreys. Some of the early ‘Galacticos’ remain my rugby heroes.

Some went to my school, and my mother even taught a few of them. I am fearful of losing a Welsh region, as we all are. But aren’t you also sick of Welsh regional rugby being the poor kid in class with the holes in his shoes? Aren’t you irritated with a situation where just six injuries to a regional squad means that their squad depth is so shallow that their season is can be severely hampered by November?

Are you not jealous of other teams across Europe with the spending power to buy current All Blacks and other top as overseas signings, whereas in Wales, some of them are on their third lap around Europe and have more bandaging than Tutankhamun?

Right now nobody knows how this will end, but regardless of your region, everyone in Wales has a dog in this fight. And I’d rather that hound was still fighting in 20 years, and not just the lapdog of French, English or Japanese rugby.

Let the restructure begin.

Paul Williams is an independent columnist for www.pro14rugby.org and the views expressed in his columns are his (who else would they be?) and not those of PRO14 Rugby.

Share this article