18.2.2003 Provincial plan on the table
[Planet-Rugby] Just when many Welsh fans might be fearing a miserable weekend on the rugby front as they host England on Saturday...
..the day after that Cardiff clash sees the latest 'D-day' for club rugby in the Principality, with a Welsh Rugby Union (WRU) EGM to decide the future shape of the professional game.
Rarely has the Welsh game been at such a low ebb after their 30-22 defeat to Italy on Saturday, and the meeting at the Civic Centre of Port Talbot could well see a four-team domestic structure voted in, with every single club in the country having a vote as to what the formula should be from next season onwards.
There are two options on the table, firstly to stick with the status quo and retain the current nine professional clubs. The other option is for those nine to slim down to four provinces, and this idea has the backing of the WRU and Wales coach Steve Hansen.
WRU chief executive David Moffett has sent a letter to each of the clubs - more than 200 of them - who will be attending the meeting, outlining why the WRU believe that the four-team option is the way forward for the game there - the vote at the end of the meeting only needing a simple majority for the motion to pass.
The four provinces - or 'NEWCOs' as the WRU are calling them - would consist of effective mergers between: Ebbw Vale and Newport, Cardiff and Pontypridd, Neath and Bridgend and finally Swansea and Llanelli.
While most of the Premier clubs have agreed to this plan, Llanelli and Cardiff believe that they should both remain as separate entities.
Moffett's letter to the member clubs stressed his belief that the current nine-team system is unsustainable, saying: "It is reasonable to assume that most rugby supporters in Wales have been unhappy with the contribution that professional rugby has provided thus far. Indeed, the tensions between the professional and amateur games are growing, not diminishing.
"The so-called professional clubs are all too often guilty of putting their parochial interests before that of the game as a whole, including the national team.
"The clubs that are the WRU, who are after all, a Union of Clubs, have a right to determine the direction and future of the game but in such a way as to ensure success at all levels, both on and off the field. The professional clubs have rights but also responsibilities to the whole game.
"Over the past few months, there have been many meetings of the Premier Division Management Board and subsequent discussions by the WRU Board in respect of the questions raised earlier. Unfortunately, but not unexpectedly, it has not been possible to reach agreement with the clubs on the way forward.
"We currently fund the professional game to the tune of £8.1 million per year. The Clubs have indicated that they need a cash injection of £1.8 million to £2 million per team per year.
"On available funds, we believe that we can only sustain four teams."
With the big vote set for Sunday, whether or not the EGM represents a genuine chance for a new formula or yet another fruitless diplomatic exercise remains to be seen, but coming as it may on the back of a heavy defeat by England, the call for change may prove too loud for the status quo to remain - although effectively forcing Llanelli and Cardiff into arranged marriages would not provide an easy baptism for provincial rugby.
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