Welsh rugby accepts a proposal in a new report that floats the idea of reducing the number of professional regional teams in Wales from four to three.
It should be emphasized that this is only one of the proposals in the document from the consultants Oakwell Sports Advisory. Other options are also on the table.
But it has raised alarm among supporters and concern within the Welsh Rugby Players’ Association, some of whose members could be affected.
The issues are very complex. Mark orders look in this explanatory article…
Another bombshell for Welsh rugby
Some would see it that way, sure. More seasoned Welsh rugby watchers might sigh and reason that Welsh rugby is never far from a bomb or a crisis somehow. Too many for decades to list here.
But, yes, it is fair to say that parts of Wales are currently deeply concerned about some of the proposals in a new report.
Some call it the Oakwell Report because it was written by Oakwell Sports Advisory (OSA). Others call it the Umbers report, presumably after Andrew Umbers, who is on the OSA team. Officially, the title of the document is not so catchy as an independent examination of the financial health of Welsh rugby. Those who might suffer adverse consequences because of his findings will likely have other names for it.
He was commissioned for the Professional Rugby Board (PRB), the organization that runs the game in Wales with members from all four regions and the WRU.
The body is made up of eight people, with Alun Jones (Cardiff Rugby), David Buttress (Dragons), Nick Garcia (Ospreys) and Simon Muderack (Scarlets) representing the four regions. Steve Phillips (CEO) and Tim Moss (Chief Financial Officer) are the two Welsh Rugby Union figures on the board and there are also two independents on the board, Malcolm Wall and Marianne Okland.
PRB meetings are also attended by WRU Performance Director Nigel Walker and Rugby Board Chairman Jon Daniels. Their next meeting will take place on Wednesday 11 May – when the report’s proposals will be discussed.
What are the ideas that made so much noise?
The headline is a proposal to drop a professional region from the following season. There is a suggestion that the region deemed surplus to need would fall into the semi-professional Welsh Premiership. In reality, this would mean the end for the affected team.
“There would be no future,” said a regional source. “There would be no progression. It would be over.”
To say that the four regions have been swimming in choppy financial waters is an understatement. In 2020, their payments for services – namely players for international duty – were reduced amid the pandemic from £26m to £3m. The WRU took out a loan of £20m which will have to be repaid over 20 years by the regions themselves, although the above services were still provided.
The WRU is focused on investing in long-term capital projects, such as the new Parkgate Hotel on Westgate Street, and believes such initiatives will eventually pay dividends. They are ready to invest CVC’s £51million in similar projects. Some in regional rugby believe the union should invest some of that money in professional rugby here and now, to ease financial concerns in the regions.
The misfortunes of the regions
Struggling financially, the regions have found things difficult on the pitch, not needing to release the Brasso to shine the silverware in the league lately. The last Welsh side to claim top honors on this front was the Scarlets in 2017.
None of them have been selected for the United Rugby Championship play-offs this year, meaning Wales will only have one team in the Heineken Champions Cup next season, and that team will only dine. at the top table thanks to the guaranteed place awarded to the winners of the Welsh Shield. It is the mini-league within the league between the four Welsh teams.
To cap a miserable campaign in Welsh rugby, Wayne Pivac’s national side lost at home to Italy for the first time, ending a disappointing Six Nations. After winning the title in 2021, they fell to fifth in the table in 2022. “It’s the classic agony and ecstasy of Welsh rugby,” union chief executive Steve Phillips said recently.
Ecstasy seems to have made a game runner here recently, though.
And with the national team also struggling, amid signs of deep concern in age-grade rugby, red lights are flashing everywhere. There are fears that if the Wales national team fails the whole game here will fail.
“To have a successful Welsh squad you need four squads because of the numbers,” a regional insider insisted to WalesOnline.
The number of players in the pro game in Wales would indeed be reduced in the event of a loss of a region: of course, with the player pool reduced to 135 players with 45 in each team. You can read more about calls for regional rugby to be scrapped here.
Which teams are threatened?
There’s certainly nothing set in stone on that front, but the Dragons belong to WRU, while some think the Ospreys not having their own home turf could count against them.
It was also generally mooted that the idea of a Scarlets-Ospreys merger could be back on the table despite it being h owl in the midst of outrage supporters in both regions when it was brought up in 2019. But a source told WalesOnline. “It’s not about one or two areas at risk. Everyone is at risk. There are only proposals in a report.”
The paper estimates that reducing the number of regions from four to three would immediately save £7.8 million. At the very least, such a move would result in a saving of £6m, with the upper estimate being £8.9m.
Cardiff and the Scarlets would certainly look safe.
Other options on the table
It must be said that Oakwell is not a one-club golfer. It’s not just about cutting off a region.
They offered other suggestions to ease Welsh rugby’s financial situation, including an idea for a different player funding model. The current one sees the WRU paying 80% of the salaries of Wales’ top 38 players, namely the main international stars, with the regions covering the remaining 20% depending on the number.
A new arrangement to run elite play in Wales was also mooted, along with a centralized business body and strategy.
In the face of widespread criticism from outside, the WRU will also echo findings that the union’s business performance is in line with that of its peers and investment in professional gaming is in line with that of other unions. Some longtime labor critics will be surprised by these findings. Some who are fiercely critical might even need to smell salts to bring them back.
However, it is also noted that Welsh rugby governance procedures and responsibilities need to be reviewed and realigned. The report adds: “Welsh rugby must immediately develop a sustainable business funding model for the next 10 years.”
No arguments there. On the new funding model linked to player funding, a source close to the Welsh rugby top told us: “No decision has been made on this.
“All the Oakwell report says is that there is not enough money in the game at the moment to support four professional clubs in this way. In reality, that means we need more The challenge, of course, is finding that investment. Nobody says it’s easy, but regions are business ventures.
What was the reaction?
The Welsh Rugby Players Association, the players’ union, is concerned about how its members could be affected if a region were to be lost. It’s completely understandable, of course. It is believed that existing contractual obligations would be fulfilled by the other three regions.
However, a senior Welsh rugby official told Wales Online: “Losing a region is not the solution as it would have an impact on the Wales team as the number of players would be reduced.
“And how are the regional supporters supposed to feel today? All professional teams try to sell season tickets, but now they do so with fans who fear their team won’t exist next season.
“The fans deserve better, and so does Welsh rugby. Regions also need to attract more investment — we know that. But you also have to think about the financing of the game as a whole.
So what is likely to happen?
As alluded to above, these recommendations could simply be rejected by the PRB when it meets next week. Some in the regions were quite relaxed when we spoke to them today.
But it is accepted that something has to change for Welsh rugby to be competitive at professional level again. If this will cause a region to be deleted, only time will tell. However, it is clear that this will be discussed in detail next week.
Such a move would further reduce the player base in Wales and likely lead to an exodus of players to England. It would also be a kick in the teeth of the derelict team’s supporters who were encouraged to support regional rugby and foster new allegiances when it debuted in 2003.
There should also be discussion about whether fewer Welsh teams would affect local broadcast money.
Something must be done, however. It’s clear. And the options will be discussed.
The ax appears to be sharp, but whether it is actually cut down on any region is less certain.