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Wales Online
Simon Thomas

'Put their big bloody pants on!' Welsh Premiership plan that's splitting opinion dubbed 'no-brainer' but some fear commercial calamity

The future of the Welsh Premiership is under discussion once again and, not for the first time, opinion is deeply divided.

The Welsh Rugby Union executive, including performance director Nigel Walker, want to see it reduced from 12 clubs to 10 from the 2023-24 season. You can read the full details of that radical proposal here.

The official stance of the Premiership clubs, as expressed by their chairman Jonathan Jones, is a desire for it to stay as a 12-team league.

But some figures within the semi-pro competition, such as Merthyr’s multi-millionaire backer Sir Stan Thomas, want it increased to 14 clubs from the season after next, as was originally agreed last year. That is also the preference of the WRU’s Community Game Board, which will have the final say on the matter.

So, just what are the arguments among the various factions? Here’s what people are saying as the numbers game hots up:


Former Cardiff RFC chairman Chris Norman is adamant that streamlining is the right way for the Premiership to go.

“It’s a no-brainer," he tells WalesOnline. "We need to reduce the teams and make it stronger. Let’s wake up and smell the coffee. I have spent the last 11 years in the Premiership and what is best for the league and Welsh rugby is fewer teams.”

Norman says the decision made last year to go to 14 teams from 2023-24 was “madness” and “a load of tosh”.

Sending out a message to the WRU Community Game Board, who will make the final decision, he said: “Tell them to put their big bloody pants on. They need to come and speak to people like me that have lived it for the last decade. I am telling you now, less teams is the way forward for Welsh rugby. I have done my hard yards and I am extremely passionate about this.

“The league needs to be the best it can be and it’s bloody obvious what needs to happen. The English Championship clubs want to come on board with us for some Anglo-Welsh fixtures as well. Like I say, it’s a no-brainer.”

One aspect of the 10-team proposal which Norman doesn’t support, however, is a ring-fencing of the Premiership, with no promotion or relegation for, say, three years.

“I don’t believe in ring-fencing, that’s for sure," he said. "You should never take away aspiration from a club. I believe in having an end-of-season play-off between the bottom club in the Premiership and the top team in the Championship.

“People have got to know that failure is a hurt. Let’s not pamper people. Let’s not put cotton wool around it all. There needs to be competition, you need to earn the right to be there. If teams don’t deserve to be there, they can’t be there. The strong survive. Until you are good enough to be there, you can’t be there."

He added: “We can’t make the Premiership a crèche. We need semi-pros for maturity to help bring the youngsters on. We need to give the kids hard yards. Monitor them and give them direction, but don’t give them an easy ride. It’s not a play-pen.”

Martyn Fowler is someone who knows a great deal about player development in his role as director of rugby at Cardiff and Vale College, while he also formerly held that role at Cardiff RFC. He is in favour of an even more radical reduction.

“It’s not the number of fixtures you play, it’s the quality of them," he said. "Club history is one thing, it’s the future we need to focus on... development opportunity and learning. It’s only an opinion, but for me, if the WRU are to cut the Premiership, it needs to be six and sit within a pro game performance-focused system.

“I struggle to genuinely see a purpose of the Premiership where it currently sits. I’m also 100 per cent against ring-fencing. Once you lose jeopardy of relegation, or aspiration of promotion, at any level, stakeholders lose interest.”


Merthyr’s multi-millionaire backer Sir Stan Thomas is firmly against a streamlining. In fact, he wants to see the Premiership expanded in size.

“I look at it from a commercial point of view," he explains. "With 10 teams, you would only have 18 league fixtures and there would be no more money overall from the WRU. Some clubs would not be able to survive for very long in that situation.

“Clubs have got to have money coming through the gates and through the bars on a weekly basis. If they don’t, they will go bust.

“Furthermore, this is a community game. This is not just for the Welsh side. The community shouldn’t suffer because the WRU decide they want to have this new type of structure.

“They don’t seem to understand we have members and people who want to watch rugby on a weekly basis. Rugby supporters want to see rugby every week.

“In my opinion, there should be 14 teams in the Premiership, giving us 26 league games. That’s what was agreed upon last year for the season after next and I am glad to see the Community Game Board are supporting that. I do hope that’s what happens.

“I want to see rugby on The Wern every other week. If you don’t give people regular rugby to watch, they will turn away from the game. You can’t have a situation where clubs don’t have a home game for a month. That’s not on.”

As for Nigel Walker’s idea of turning a streamlined Premiership into a finishing school for regional youngsters, Thomas said: “Nigel has come on board with these great ideas, but he is not considering the commercial side for the clubs.

“I like Nigel a lot, he is a good man. I have worked with him on numerous charity projects. He is bright and sees the future for Welsh rugby the way he does. But unless they pay the money - and I am talking £200,000 per team - clubs will go bust under his plan, because of the reduced number of fixtures.

“They say they want to improve rugby. To improve rugby, boys have got to play rugby. You can’t improve players by giving them less games.”


Premiership clubs chairman Jonathan Jones has consistently argued that the semi-pro league should stay as it is.

“The preferred proposal of Nigel Walker’s performance group is 10 teams," said the Ebbw Vale chairman. "We don’t agree on that. We still believe it should be 12. We maintain that is the right number.

“One of the things we are keen on is we don’t make a decision in haste that we later regret. The decision which was taken previously to say we weren’t part of the pathway was done in indecent haste and was a complete shambles. What replaced it, in terms of regional A teams, fell apart within months. Quite blatantly that was the wrong decision and it was proved wrong within three months.

“We would like to slow things down, so we are not making decisions in haste again. We need to get the right result for once and for all because change has been almost a circular feature of the Premiership. We regularly, every few years, go through a cycle of ‘what is the purpose of the league?’ and we change direction. At the end of the day, we want to get this right and we should not be involving time-scales that could lead to the wrong decisions being made.”


WRU performance director Nigel Walker is spearheading the drive for a streamlining of the Premiership to 10 teams from 2023-24.

The former Wales wing says: “The key is making sure there is a continuous supply of quality players at 21, 22 and 23. The Premiership needs to be the finishing school for those players.

“Not everyone is going to be like Joe Hawkins [Ospreys and Wales U20s centre], who is going to play his fair share of games for his region. The majority of our U20s are going to need to play at Premiership level. The only way you can do that is if the quality of the Premiership is high enough.”

The challenge Walker now faces is persuading the Community Game Board that cutting to 10 teams is the best way forward. That body, which includes representatives of the amateur clubs, has so far blocked his plans and want to stick with the original idea of increasing the Premiership to 14 teams from 2023-24. Just what the final decision will be remains to be seen, with less than three weeks to go before the start of the new season.

Geraint John is the WRU’s community director and has been heavily involved in the discussions over the future of the semi-pro league.

Speaking this week, he said: “We’ve been talking about how many teams it should be, we’ve looked at how many players do we think we have to be part of the system. But the key thing around this is we want the Premiership to have a clear purpose, so that any person who goes to watch a game understands what it’s there for.

“Is it the finishing school for our players, is it the finishing school for our referees and coaches, is it part of the performance pathway pipeline? If it is, then we will all have to make decisions to make sure that purpose and clarity gets fulfilled and those discussions are still taking place.”

John was speaking at Morriston RFC while visiting one of the WRU’s recently-launched “Fit, Fed, Fun” camps, which are aimed at supporting children and families during the school holidays by targeting kids who would benefit from free meals at the sessions, which also offer rugby and educational activities.

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