We should play our natural Welsh game

Peter Stead says we need a Commission to examine Wales’s rugby crisis in detail

There appears to be a real danger of Welsh regional rugby becoming second-rate as its stars buy French language tapes or English city guides as they head for pastures new. Many fans seem prepared to ignore all human rights and European laws as they advocate a kind of employment autarky which would exclude from the Welsh squad all ‘exiles’. We should never go down that road but clearly we need to think seriously about the quality of club matches in Wales and their attraction as far as crowds are concerned.

One is tempted to think of how individual incomes can be boosted for the best Welsh players. One method would be for the players to be remunerated by going-concerns in Wales. Only two come to mind.

Surely it would make sense for BBC Wales to employ every member of the Welsh squad. It has plenty of money for salaries and pensions. Most players have loads of studio experience and they could readily combine sports punditry with news reporting, news presentation and weather forecasting.  Broadcasting standards would be enhanced and our best players would be at hand for squad sessions.

The other option would be for all our squad players to become AMs. The salary issue would be solved and, as with the broadcasting option, there would be a direct improvement in the quality of service.

We all knew that in the long run the coming of professionalism would create huge difficulties for a post-industrial Wales with a negligible private sector.  The notion that the regions could become a replica of premiership soccer teams or even first division English rugby clubs, was always going to be dependant on attracting huge crowds, significant private sponsorship and a real club identity.

Regional rugby has failed in all these respects. I am not really sure if there is a way forward for Welsh rugby but the following steps would seem to be essential.

  • Central WRU contracts for all Welsh squad members.
  • The fixtures have to be made more attractive and that can only mean regular matches against English and French clubs.
  • Matches should be played at regular times such as 7.30pm on Fridays.
  • The regional sides have to become real clubs with a membership and a wide range of social and sporting facilities such as gyms, spas, pools and youth sides.
  • Private sponsorship would play a part in this social enhancement of the clubs.
  • The four regional teams should be given adult and proper names such as Llanelli, Swansea Bay, Cardiff and Newport.

There is a need for a commission to look at the nature and quality the rugby played in Wales. Our national and regional coaches have been far too defensive in their approach. They have aped southern hemisphere rugby and have cruelly neglected the naturally talented players that have emerged from Welsh youth rugby.

By looking closely at Australian and Rugby league methods we could restore that era when Welsh centres, half-backs and back row forwards appreciated handling and running skills. At present we are not playing the natural Welsh game.

Welsh rugby needs to be rescued from bureaucrats and negative thinking.  Only by making our game and fixtures attractive will we make domestic rugby a viable proposition.  Otherwise it’s ’bon voyage’ to our stars.

Peter Stead is a cultural historian of 20th Century Wales. With Huw Richards and Gareth Williams he edited Heart and Soul – the character of Welsh rugby (1998).

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