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Bullish Dragons chairman David Buttress riles against 'rubbish' Welsh rugby claim and fires warning as future is thrashed out

By Matthew Southcombe

Bullish Dragons chairman David Buttress has rubbished suggestions the game in Wales cannot financially support four professional regions.

Speaking for the first time since proposals to slash one of the four pro teams emerged just over a week ago, Buttress also insisted that administrators would regret any decision to cull a team and that it was not the option that was ‘focussed’ on when bosses met to discuss possible solutions this week.

The Dragons were thrust into the firing line as one of the teams to feel the axe given their majority owner is the Welsh Rugby Union and they have, in recent history, been the least successful region.

READ MORE: Plan to revolutionise Welsh rugby was killed by the clubs four years ago

When the suggestion Wales could not sustain four regions anymore was put to him, he said: “I think that’s just rubbish. There are two things. Firstly, if you don’t invest in something whether that’s a rugby product, Just Eat or a technology company, then the business will contract.

“If you don’t have a strategy which looks at how do these three, four, five parts of our business all grow over a medium-long term basis, and then hold yourself to account against those plans, then of course you’re going to find yourself in a position where you start to scratch your head and you’ll be going: ‘I’m in a reductive mindset now and I have to cost cut’.

“The reality is, that if you invest in a product, have a clear plan and a strategy, then I one hundred percent know and believe that Welsh rugby can not only support four, but we can have a successful professional game below international level.”

Buttress also warned that the reduction of professional teams, leading to the reduction of elite players, would harm the national side in the coming years.

He pointed out: “Let’s not forget – and this is a really important point – the Welsh national team was successful over the last 15 years and why? Because the structure of the four professional teams has served it very well.

“I don’t think it would serve the Welsh national team well, and it would not leave a good legacy in 10 years, if we have a similar number of professional rugby players to those in Scotland. If anything, we need to make sure that we invest in the current setup so that we’re able to continue to compete with Ireland and England for Six Nations titles and World Cup semi-finals and finals.

“We don’t want to put ourselves in a position where we have a smaller player pool and expect the Welsh national team to perform. Because I suspect we’d wake up in 10 years’ time and ask: ‘Why did we do that?’”

When asked whether he thought there was enough cash available to fund the four professional regions appropriately, Buttress conceded that the coming 18 months would be financially challenging due to the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic.

“Like all good businesses,” he explained. “You have to live within your means and then let’s challenge ourselves to grow so that financially we get strong enough to invest more to improve performance.”

Buttress, the founder of Just Eat, went on to lament the short-term nature of the way money is distributed in Wales. The game here has tended to go from year-to-year not knowing exactly what level of money will flow from the WRU to each individual region. Most recently, the most notice that has been afforded has been a two-year funding plan, which concludes next term.

The Dragons’ head honcho believes a longer term strategy is required and also addressed other issues related to funding. One mooted solution to the game’s current issues is to adopt something like a two plus two funding model. That involves two regions receiving a considerably higher level of funding in order to compete with Europe’s elite, while the other two receive less and effectively become development sides.

There have been fears that the Dragons would become the poor relation in such a model.

Buttress’ assessment was: “I have to tell you, I smile when I hear about two plus two and one plus three and all the rest of it because since I’ve been involved in Welsh rugby, it’s never had an even playing field in terms of investment. There are four teams at pro level and each one of them has a different level of funding of which the Dragons have the lowest. There has never been this concept of equal funding.

“Do I think each club has unique circumstances that require different plans and strategies in order for it to grow? One hundred percent. To me, that makes tons of sense. But what we actually need, more importantly, is stable funding over a medium-long term basis.

“One of the things I’ve found really hard since I’ve been involved... I can’t think of any other business I’m involved in where every year you’re asking ‘what’s the funding?’ We need to create a stable funding environment so that everyone involved in PRB and investors can know what the challenge is over the next three, four, five years and therefore you can make a plan to grow from it as opposed to being in this cycle every year of what it’s going to be.

“You can’t build anything with such a short-term horizon and that’s been the biggest thing that we’re going to address and fix when it comes to Welsh rugby.”

On Wednesday this week, the Professional Rugby Board – on which Buttress sits – met to discuss the proposals in the Oakwell report.

“The meeting was good and was definitely constructive,” said Buttress. “Was it difficult and are there challenges that sit within that room? One hundred percent, I don’t think we should shy away from that reality, but there is a genuine intention that everyone wants to create the solution.

“I feel quietly confident after that meeting that we are going to end up in a good place.”

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