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).

6 thoughts on “We should play our natural Welsh game

  1. Oh! Come on Peter! Not more bureacracy!!

    Points 2 and 6 I don’t agree with. Remember the Rabo (Celtic league has supplied the winner of the H-Cup in 4 of the last 6 years and the 6-Nations.

    While I agree that we need to do much more to improve attendances that was and is a problem for the clubs being professional in the first place.

    In many other respects we’re better off than the French and English. Their clubs have larger attendences, but not that much more when I ‘ve been over or watch them on French or English TV.

    In France (and England) the clubs are largely supported by “Sugar Daddies” who inflate the cost of players and who want to get control of the game via the League (LNR). However, last week the FFR threatened to put the LNR out of business. The clubs caved in and agreed to play in the H-Cup.

    Currently, on any given week-end the Top 14, only some 4 fly-halves qualify for France. The English game is not much better. They supply a few more players but the clubs have the RFU by the throat.

    In effect both England and France, if limited to only a few foreign imports per team, would only have players enough for 4 or 5 “Regions” each.

    The H-Cup row was all about 2 things:-
    1. the English and French clubs desperate for more money, at the expence of other nations, to prop up uneconomic model.
    2. the English and French leagues (clubs) trying to take over control of the European game. Thereby tipping the finance and results in their favour.

    This is all a battle that has been going on in English Soccer for ages. It’s why the Premiership was created. But the FA are too daft to control it and are now back where they started.

    The International game (in any sport) is the pinnacle and the Leagues/clubs that feed it must not be allowed to be the tail that wags the dog.

  2. All so typically Welsh!

    Whilst the rest of the world focusses in on education, here in Wales we’ve already moved on ….. to rugby! Yes, we’ve won the six nations many times over the last few years, but no, our club rugby will not survive.

    Still, at least we’re doing things the ‘Welsh way’.

  3. The problem here is that one is uncertain when Dr Stead is being satirical and when he is being serious – a reflection on the situation rather than Dr Stead, it must be stressed. Although his tongue was probably in his cheek when he suggested giving rugby players jobs with the BBC or as AMs, similar accommodations were far from unknown in the ‘good old days’ of the amateur game, and both the BBC and the Assembly would benefit from new blood. On the other hand, his suggestion of setting up a ‘commission’ has become such a cliché in Wales that one would be happier if it was satire. Since a WRU man is heading a commission on local government, will we get a politico heading a WRU commission by way of returning the favour? Satire has a way of coming true in Wales.

    In any case, any commission that did its work properly can only tell us what we know already: (1) our small population, in both senses of the word, and relative poverty mean professionalisation was never going to work in our favour; (2) organised social activities in general are in decline and our only hope is to get more young people playing; and (3) it is impossible to generate affection for artificial entities, so the regional strategy was misconceived from the start. Can anyone from the WRU afford to admit that?

  4. The main problem is low gates, roughly half in Welsh regions what an Irish region attracts. The fact is most Welsh people aren’t that interested in rugby, certainly not in rugby at sub-national level. Since they don’t care much, why should we? Let’s go back to talking about education. Unlike rugby, that is compulsory.

  5. I read something a few months ago about sport in Wales. According to research done for a book on the sociology of Wales (albeit now rather dated), walking is in fact the most popular activity and football is more popular than rugby. It seems that as far as entertainment and the national game is concerned people are more interested in the Welsh game than the regional game.

  6. Whilst I have some sympathy with Dr Stead’s viewpoints on the Welsh game …in particular the need for a more instinctive and open style of play and the need for central contracts if the game is to survive at the highest level in Wales, I do not share the ‘received wisdom’ in Wales, that the game is impoverished or un-sustainable because of limited finance…although this is it’s fundamental problem ofcourse. Let me point out first, that I am an avid (obsessive some might say) supporter of rugby at all levels – village club (Division 3 South West), Regional (mainly Blues and Dragons) and international rugby (home and away). The professional game in England, Ireland and Scotland is still followed by a well-heeled and reliable middle class following and generally, large populations. Most Welsh supporters have decided to ‘compromise’ over the years, largely forsaking their 4 regional sides in favour of …and I emphasise this very strongly…one of the 300+ rugby clubs between (say) Pontypool and Tenby (not ignoring our friends North of Merthyr) and attending internationals occasionally (a day out from say Carmarthen, which will now set you back, close on £200 I’d say). There is no other part of the U.K. with such a concentration or choice of clubs to follow….and there is a following (and long may it last because the one thing Welsh rugby does not lack is the availability of raw talent). One negative aspect of local club rugby over recent years however has been the widespread payment (sometimes very generously) of players…and strangely there is no shortage of local sponsors or benefactors!!! This is, to my mind, the financial equivalent of pouring money down the drain …although I recognise the courage and dedication now required to play the game at all levels. So is there really such a dearth of financial backing in Wales or is it simply our failure as yet to identify or marshal a financial model suitable for our specific needs?

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