I CONFESS that it feels a bit churlish, unpatriotic even, to be writing a piece bemoaning the state of Welsh Rugby on the eve of a 6 Nations campaign in which I fervently hope we carry all before us. But too many of us have bitten our lips in recent years, suppressing fears that the foundations of our national game are being eroded, but hopeful of a renaissance and, less courageously perhaps, mindful of the Welsh Rugby Union’s propensity to close ranks and proffer a cold shoulder to those who question their judgement.
Now though, it’s time for those of us who love the game, for its beauty and ferocity but also for its traditional, central role in the social and economic lives of our communities, to speak out about our concerns that the current mode of elite, regional rugby in Wales is jeopardising the long-term health of grassroots of support and participation, and consequently damaging our communities.
I’m clearly not alone in harbouring these concerns. By the time you read this, the 2000th name will hopefully have been added to my petition calling on the WRU to Reform Regional Rugby. Whilst there is an impressive spread of signatures from across Wales and far beyond, most of the petitioners live in the South Wales Valleys, the region that, over the last decade, has felt most acutely the impact of the regional revolution and the retrenchment of professional rugby into the coastal strip south of the M4.
As Valleys MP and a rugby fanatic, I started the petition in order to reflect the extent of the hurt in communities that feel ‘disenfranchised’ by Welsh rugby’s ruling interests. Residents of traditional rugby communities – Pontypool, Ebbw Vale, Pontypridd and the Rhondda, Newbridge, Abertillery, Maesteg and, in different ways, Neath and Bridgend – feel increasingly alienated from, and indifferent to, the regional constructs – The Blues, Ospreys and Dragons – which were supposed to represent them.
This increasingly deep-rooted disconnection persists almost ten years after the creation of the regions. Two recent articles in UK-wide newspapers sum up the scale of the problem:
‘…the Welsh regions were cobbled together as a quick fix in a time of financial woe, and ignored by the public.’ The Observer(22.01.12)
‘Three out of the Four Wales regions are struggling so badly that the Welsh Rugby Union, desperate for so long to uphold the principle of regional rugby, are now at least allowing discussions with a view to re-vamping the scene, and returning the four clubs to their home cities.’ The Sunday Times (15.01.12)
So what went wrong? What, if any, is the role for politicians in debating the future of our national game? And, no matter who engages in the debate, is there anything that can be done to improve matters?
What went wrong is the easiest question to answer, because the evidence is fresh and compelling. Popular myth would tell you that Regional Rugby was the brainchild of just one man, David Moffett, the cosmopolitan rugby administrator who persuaded the WRU to abandon over 100 years of club identity, rivalry, heritage and heroes in exchange for the synthetic, rootless confection of ‘regional’ super-clubs.
The justification for the change was two-fold. In rugby terms, inspired by Mr Moffett’s Aussie antecedents, the idea was to boil down the player and coaching base to a more concentrate number of ‘professional’ and successful clubs, to underpin a revival of the national team. Far more important than the rugby, however, was the financial logic which drove the change, and here Mr Moffett was just a cog in a corporate and capitalist machine.
Let’s be clear, rugby wasn’t so much professionalised in 1995 as monetised and marketised. The transformation of the game from a community-led passion to a brand-manager’s commodity was effected at a Klondike pace and left the traditional supporters and guardians of the game gasping in its wake. Rugby as a newly packaged product demanded maximal returns, thus the gold fever rush to TV razzmatazz, bigger stadia, marquee players, corporate boxes and rich benefactors. Protest was swept aside in the name of this ‘progress’. Anyone harbouring reservations was dismissed as Luddite or worse, parochial, and obstructive of the greater good.
In hindsight, the pattern of this commodifcation is clear, and its victims – community, tradition, values and local control – are familiar from so many other walks of modern life where the market has triumphed. As familiar as the inequitable pattern of rewards from the process, whereby an elite (of players and administrators) have cashed in, commanding enormous salaries justified in part by their talent, but more so by the universal logic of the market: their labour is mobile and demand will dictate where they ply it. ‘TINA’, that soul-sapping rallying cry of modern capitalism, rings out from the WRU and their corporate outriders, just as it does from the bonus-wielding banking millionaires defending the indefensible: ‘If we want to compete, There Is No Alternative.’
The trouble with that logic is that it fails to recognise that not everything can be commoditised – at least not without some things losing their essence in the transformation. Welsh rugby is clearly one of those things. The unique traditions, sporting rivalries and social relationships, or the experience and fervour of Welsh club rugby simply could not be distilled and transferred to the regional clubs. The ‘product’ of professional Welsh rugby is therefore a thin and unsatisfying brew. And rugby fans know it – that’s why they are staying away.
Crowds at the regional games are poor, all but matched on occasion by those watching semi-pro matches at Pontypridd or Aberavon – both of whom saw attendances of 5000 at recent games. Concern is growing, too, that the popularity of football and rugby league (and the activism of their scouts) is filling a void, particularly in the Valleys, where the Union game was once king. Local kids increasingly look to sign for The Swans or The City, or worse, go north on League university scholarships, when once they might have been local heroes on the Sardis sward.
Now, critics like me must admit that internationally, we have improved from the 90s doldrums – albeit in fits and starts and, in 2005, with a backbone of players from the old order. The academy system does seem to be producing players of quality, capacity and commitment, showing perhaps that Moffett’s model of identifying and developing an elite cadre of young players may well breed international success. But at what cost?
Rugby, like football, is an ecosystem. The rules of the ecosystem apply as they do in nature: those at the apex of evolution may prey on lesser creatures, but they also need them to flourish – or the food source will dry up. The genetically-engineered super-clubs, elevated above the ‘feeder’ clubs of the Welsh Premiership and, even more importantly, above the traditional locations and loyalties and history of the game, are in danger of eating away the foundations on which they ought to be built.
Hyperbole or truth? Well, witness the club-level atrophy and fan-base apathy: the weeds that sprout from the terraces of our once proud clubs at Pooler Park or Eugene Cross and the barren fields of empty seats at their regional replacements are all the proof we should need. But some will still need persuading, especially those who insist on measuring the success of our game with an accountant’s slide rule. They should look to the ledgers of the super clubs themselves. By their own admission, they are failing on the open market.
Their business model is broken – predicated on attendances they cannot achieve and players they cannot afford. That’s why a salary cap has been introduced. That’s why the WRU has commissioned its own accountants to review the ‘sustainability’ of our professional game and why rumours swirl that the ‘answer’ they hope to hear from the bean-counters is that further contraction is required. Three regions, anyone? Two perhaps? This is Welsh rugby’s equivalent of George Osborne’s delusion of ‘Expansionary Fiscal Contraction’, and likely to lead to the same destination: reduced demand and a recession in activity.
Politicians should care about all this because it is too big a problem for the game’s administrators to be left to sort out. It is crucial that Welsh politicians – at Westminster, The Assembly and in Local Authorities – engage in this debate, especially those who represent the communities in which the great clubs of the Welsh Rugby Union are located: Pontypool, Pontypridd, Ebbw Vale, Neath, Abertillery, Newbridge, Caerphilly, Maesteg and Bridgend. We need to give voice to our constituents continuing anger and frustration at the emasculation of their clubs.
The downgrading of those clubs has inflicted social and economic harm on our communities: taking hundreds of thousands of pounds out of local economies and undermining institutions – the clubs – that had played vital roles as centres for social and intergenerational cohesion. Rugby remains one of the defining features of our communities’ identities. We’re good at it, we’re known for it across the world. It ought to be one of the strengths that we can build on to market our communities as places where people want to live or locate their business. They understand that potential in France, for example, where Local Authorities support and subsidise their teams as part of the cultural ‘offer’ they sell to investors and residents alike.
So what can be done? First we can speak up, to publicly test and acknowledge extent of the problems and to challenge the game’s authorities to address them. Second, we can do what the WRU should have done in the first instance and ask the rugby communities of Wales what they actually want. And third, we can make suggestions as to how change might come about: what alternative models of ownership and control might reconnect the fans to the clubs; what enthusiasm might be sparked by greater concentration on historic club ‘brands’; what dynamism might be unleashed by smashing the closed shop of the regional clubs and exposing them to the healthy competition of promotion and relegation; and what are the opportunities for Valleys communities that location of professional rugby within them might unlock?
Local teams and local heroes provide more than just entertainment. They can be standard bearers for our communities in the world at large, sources of pride and spurs to ambition. The decision, therefore, to sacrifice such sporting traditions and social benefits, is surely one that should be subject to review.
That’s why I started the petition. That’s why we have commissioned research to answer the questions posed above. And that is why I am delighted that South Wales MPs are coming together to back the campaign. WalesHome readers will be welcome too. Join the campaign. Sign the petition. Join with Neath and Pontypridd fans to celebrate our rich heritage and demand an equally rich future at a rally after the match at Sardis Road on the 31st of March. Stand up and be counted – the future of our game in Wales, and in the Valleys in particular, is at stake.
Owen Smith MP
To sign Owen’s petition, go to http://www.ipetitions.com/petition/reform-regional-rugby/