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The Muddy Waters of Welsh Rugby: An identity crisis that has affected the game for a generation

RECENT history has seen the Welsh national side punch above its proverbial weight on the international stage. Four Six Nations Championships, a World Cup semi-final appearance and 42 players provided for the British and Irish Lions in that period suggests a rugby playing nation in rude health.

However, a closer look betrays a far more complex, and indeed, far less rosy state of affairs. Instead, we see a regional game that is emerging from the throes of a damaging political civil war with its own union, a semi-professional league whose purpose is rather clouded, and a community game that is in grave danger of dying on its feet.

Much of the fall out was played out between the four Welsh regions, and the Welsh rugby Union under the leadership of recently departed chairman David Pickering, and its controversial former chief executive Roger Lewis.

Arguably the biggest dilemma Welsh rugby faces is what to do with the semi-professional Welsh Premiership, which sits below the regional game.

When former chief executive David Moffett took a leap of faith and turned Welsh rugby upside down way back in 2003 by converting 12 clubs with deep-rooted historical traditions into five, now four, regions, the Welsh Premiership was supposed to be the jewel in the crown.

It was intended to be the tier that provided the glue between the amateur game, and a conveyor belt for future Welsh internationals.

However, a large number of coaches who have been involved in the game at both regional and semi-professional level believe that the players produced, who eventually go on to play for Wales, do so in spite of the Welsh Premiership.

Martyn Fowler is a man as qualified as any to discuss the relative strengths and weaknesses of Welsh rugby’s development pathway. A native of Cardiff and a proud rugby man, Fowler has first-hand experience of the Welsh Premiership from his time as head coach of Cardiff RFC.


A man of experience: Martyn Fowler

“I don’t think the Premiership knows what it is,” said Mr Fowler. “It doesn’t know its place within Welsh rugby.”

Fowler is alluding to the different emphasis that each club takes, whether that is to focus on developing the next regional rugby superstar, or concentrating on winning trophies.

“I the think the broader question is where does the Premiership fit into the development pathway?

“Now they have ring-fenced the Premiership, in my opinion it should be more development based than performance based.

“If the clubs embrace that safe in the knowledge that they aren’t going to be relegated there is a real opportunity to develop some of that young talent out there.”

Ben Jeffreys is another man who cares deeply for the fortunes of Welsh rugby at grass roots level. As chief executive of one of Welsh rugby’s most historic clubs, Pontypool RFC, Mr Jeffreys is a forward thinker who has fought hard for the community game to thrive.

Pontypool were at one time a feared side within British rugby. Famous for its legendary 1970’s front row trio of British Lions Charlie Faulkner, Bobby Windsor, and Graham Price the Gwent club has fallen a long way since those halcyon days.

One of the issues constantly raised is the relationship between the four Welsh regions, Cardiff Blues, Newport Gwent Dragons, Ospreys, and Scarlets, to their feeder clubs within the Welsh Premiership.

Many supporters of the old club sides have not taken to regional rugby, with a lack of affinity and poor relationships at community level often cited as reasons behind their lack of support.

“I think the practical problem is that the regions are still asking themselves to this day what they are in the eyes of the consumer,” said Mr Jeffreys.

A lack of clarity seems to be rife throughout Welsh rugby, with many supporters of the semi-professional clubs unaware as to what they are supporting.

Are they supporting their clubs in a quest for silverware, or are they supporting the development of the next generation of regional players?

As the chief executive of a Swalec Championship club what does Mr Jeffreys think that the role of the Premiership and the Swalec Championship should be?

“As a club (Pontypool) we have the objective of winning the Swalec Championship this season.

“First and foremost that’s my objective and focus, not on developing tomorrow’s Welsh international player in isolation.

“That is, of course, an objective we have, but it’s not our primary objective.

“We have a duty to our season ticket holders who invest in Pontypool RFC, and everybody who turns up to our games to the best we can to gain victory to give them good value for their Saturday afternoon.”

There are many that believe that the standard of rugby at semi-professional level is not of a high enough standard in terms of developing Welsh internationals of the future.

But surely that can’t be right?

After all a large amount of the current Welsh squad have played in the Welsh Premiership in the early stages of their careers.

Scott Williams, Rhys Priestland, Taulupe Faletau, Rhys Webb and many more current stars have played in the Premiership at one time or another.

But Mr Fowler quickly dismisses this claim.

“The Premiership provides opportunities for talented players to play but it’s certainly not developing talented players”, he said.

“The gap between the Premiership and the pro game in Wales is huge, but the gap between the Aviva Premiership and the English Championship is not as big.”

The four regions have attempted to bridge the gap between the semi-professional level and regional rugby.

The creation of four regional A sides to compete in the British and Irish Cup in place of the Premiership sides has caused uproar in some quarters.

It is hoped that by bridging the gap between the Premiership and the much-maligned Guinness Pro 12 there will emerge a more testing environment for Wales’ next generation of players to develop.

There are clubs such as Pontypridd who are vehemently against the creation of A sides, claiming that it unfairly deprives Pontypridd and its supporters of the top class games they deserve.

Mr Jeffreys is, however, receptive to the latest structural change to Welsh rugby.


Ben Jeffreys Pontypool RFC CEO

“I think it is a good idea if it is to be used in the way it was designed”, he said.

“Yes, there will be clubs like Pontypridd who will be upset that they have lost a set of fixtures that got their supporters engaged in travelling to different places, which were a bit fresh and new.

“But in terms of a structural point of view I think the A teams is a nice bridge between the pro game, the semi-pro game, and the amateur game, so long as this muddy concept of regional rugby is here to stay.”

It is that ‘muddy’ concept which Mr Jeffreys alludes to that seems to be the major problem facing Welsh rugby.

What are the four professional rugby entities in Wales supposed to represent?

What is the role of the semi-professional tier in Welsh rugby?

The answers to these questions are nigh on impossible to reach with any real clarity 12 years on from the inception of regional rugby.