Get all your news in one place
100’s of premium titles. One news app. Zero ads. Just $10 per month.

Welsh should look west for solutions

Munster's Shane Daly offloads the ball while being tackled by Dragons's Jordan Williams, left, and Rio Dyer of Dragons during their United Rugby Championship clash at Thomond Park back in March. Photo: Brendan Moran/Sportsfile

Back when Wales was going through another phase of skirt-hitching in the hope of getting a lift from a passer-by — any passer-by other than their Celtic cousins — a Cardiff pal reminisced about the happier times when Welsh and English clubs would draw big crowds to their challenge games.

Typically this would have involved the likes of Bristol and Bath going at it with the big four of Cardiff, Newport, Swansea and Llanelli. The way he told it, you were transported back to John Ford’s 1940s movie How Green Was My Valley.

It would be fair to say Wales have never settled in the pro game. This is ironic given they were ahead of the rest of us in these islands in discreet pay for play — or boot money as it was known back then. But when it went official and the starter’s gun sounded Wales just never got out of the traps.

Unlike Ireland, where the debate was short — and never revisited — about the dominant All Ireland League clubs of the day possibly going into European competition ahead of the provinces, the IRFU dusted down those same provinces and never looked back. Across the water however there was a traumatic reshuffle from clubs to regions in 2003, and those who feel ill at the mention of Dragons or Ospreys, rather than Newport or Neath or Swansea, never got over it.

For an up to date illustration of the state of play consider this weekend’s European quarter-final line-ups. Between the Heineken Champions Cup and Challenge Cup England and France have six clubs each, with Ireland and Scotland on two apiece. Not a bouncy leak in sight. How could there be? None of their teams won a game on the field.

As for the URC, with the runners and riders jockeying for position coming around the final bend to its quarter-finals, there is no chance of a Welsh side making the cut. So to continue the theme of slicing, the Welsh Rugby Union called up the consultants who have suggested three, instead of four, might be the magic number.

It’s not that long since we had our own existential crisis when the IRFU bean counters produced an axe and began waving it in the direction of Connacht. It prompted an emotional and well-organised response, culminating in a march through leafy Dublin streets to the IRFU offices on Lansdowne Road.

For us however the highlight of those events in 2002/’03 was an interview given to BBC Radio Ulster by Connacht manager John Fallon, who had taken a year out from journalism to manage his local province. How useful to have a meeja man on board when push came to shove. In the interview Fallon reminded the Norn Iron listeners that not only would cutting Connacht be like a fly bouncing off the windscreen of IRFU debt, but the next weakest province would then be sweating bullets.

This is a question the WRU will be addressing this week, the answer to which has ramifications for their partners in EPCR, URC and, indirectly, the Six Nations. Bear in mind in the Championship just gone Wales wrapped up by losing to Italy at home for the first time.

It will be interesting to see if they call up David Moffett, then WRU chief executive when the clubs were supplanted by the regions. He conceded recently his reshuffle hasn’t produced a winning hand, and the best option now would be to crack on with the big four clubs of old — Cardiff, Newport, Swansea and Llanelli — looking and sounding like they used to before he got stuck in.

It seems naïve that a simple return to the way they were will turn the ship around, for truly they are adrift. The biggest crowd at a match outside a Wales Test was the Varsity game between Swansea and Cardiff, pulling in 13,000. That’s a staggering attendance for a students match, even with all the ancillary stuff that surrounds it, but a frightening stat for their pro teams higher up the pyramid.

Another scary figure for the WRU is the loss of 25pc of their take from URC and EPCR if they reduce from four regions to three.

They would also have to return up to 25pc of the CVC money from the URC deal. Maybe it would still make financial sense on paper when the compare/contrast is done with not having to fund a team, but they might be better off looking over here for a steer.

In fairness to the IRFU once they backed off cutting Connacht they took seriously the business of making them profitable.

Meantime over in Wales at least we haven’t heard much talk in the last week that Anglo-Welsh competition is the answer to their ills. It goes a bit deeper than that.