The recent news of Maesteg taking voluntary demotion due to a player shortage and Nigel Davies’ comments on the Principality Premiership and National Championship structure proves how hard clubs find surviving in modern times. Robert Rees takes a look at the hardships that Welsh clubs have found upon themselves.
Club rugby in Wales isn’t quite what it used to be on the spectator side of things. Crowds have dropped away since the early 1990s. Due to a number of reasons. The loss of steelworks, mines, male voice choirs and an entire technological culture change has left rugby with a completely new challenge.
No longer is it the norm to come from work with your mates and go down to watch one or more of them play at the local rugby club. Kids no longer seek outdoor activities as often as they open up the latest game and play online with the wider world.
Community clubs usually attract family and friends with only a select few Premiership clubs breaking four figure averages. Treasurers are having to really drive other income sources as gate receipts and replica shirt sales dissipate.
Too many clubs for the population and the resulting wage war
A first it appears to be a harsh statement. Looking at it further, Wales’ 300+ clubs are heavily based in the south and this does have a disadvantage as the crowds and players drift away.
Some areas boast of over 10 clubs within a 15 minute drive, hardly ideal in a world where clubs struggle to attract players without big payments. Larger payments at a community club level are becoming less of a rarity and is causing an unhealthy wage war amongst those who cannot afford it.
Blackwood RFC had issues over the summer, utilising a spokesperson to message people asking if they wished to play for cash. Maesteg have also recently taken a voluntary relegation due to a player shortage.
The club would like to confirm to all members & supporters that it has made the decision to withdraw from playing in Division 1WC and have requested to join Division 3ECC for the coming season. The WRU have granted the club’s request. 1/3
— Maesteg RFC (@MaestegRFC) 17 August 2018
Premiership clubs have been paying players handsomely since the club-region split. The WRU income has been seen as being squandered and a project reset has taken away a large sum off the clubs in order to aid development of players elsewhere.
Funding decrease coming in over next four years
The Premiership hasn’t been the greatest of development platforms for some years now. As a result this has been the WRU’s major reasoning in dropping some of the funding.
Funding will reduce from £90,000 to £50,000 over the next four years.
Battle number one inside the Welsh Prem is the internal wage battle. Merthyr apply their own cash by the shed load. Others increase to try and hold on to base squad. Attract others requires more and all of a sudden you have a wage war inflation. Cap needed, if it can be policed.
— Robert Rees (@Rreesrugby) 20 August 2018
The internal wage war has seen clubs struggle in recent years with one club reportedly having money troubles over the past 12-15 months.
A salary cap, managed by the audits which are part of the A license would be the best way to go around this. Unfortunately brown envelopes can still be utilised to pay players away from the books.
The wage war has seemingly triggered a lot of anger with Ebbw Vale and Premiership Board member Jon Jones firing some more comments on the current situation.
Messed around structure hasn’t helped development platform
The big debate over regional academy players being dropped into clubs is that the Premiership isn’t a great tool for their development. True as that is, the WRU and indeed clubs themselves haven’t helped themselves out with that in recent seasons.
There has been an increase in the number of clubs, ring-fencing has been introduced and removed; play-offs have been introduced and scrapped.
The Foster’s Cup was meant for development, but quickly became a farce. The league has been split into a top half and bottom half as well as east and west. To top it off the WRU and World Rugby decided it was the ideal league to test six-point tries and two-point penalties. A massive flop!
How can a league focus on developing players when it’s been put through that many changes? Thankfully, all involved have realised the mistakes and apologies have been made. Sadly it put a lot of supporters off with fixtures in recent seasons being weeks apart.
Clubs need to engage junior sections and local schools to thrive
Clubs have to get the next generation on board; hard as this is with technology at such a peak. Clubs must do fun days, community camps. Bedwas and the Dragons have recently worked together in a squad reveal and open camp. Pontypridd ran summer camps for kids, Ebbw Vale had an open training session with other carnival style stalls on offer.
Making rugby fun and easily available to young people and their parents/guardians is the key to get them on board. As a club, it isn’t always possible to run a juniors section so clubs should get together and utilise each others’ resources as a hub.
Sadly, schools rugby isn’t in any quantity and little quality throughout Wales. Getting hub officers working closely with primary schools, secondary schools and colleges can be key to engage young people without having to find them in the first place.
Take the clubs to the kids
Rather than have the clubs trying to find the kids, take the clubs to them. Fun sessions right up to competitive training and skills sessions can be implemented with good success; especially if there are personal rewards to be taken from it for the players.
However, not enough schools and colleges have enough players. Therefore joint ventures could well be the way in the future to ensure a full season of league fixtures. This avoids players becoming bored of training without purpose and keeps development and engagement levels up.
Project reset a positive step forward
Despite the recent criticism, the near future of Welsh club rugby structure certainly seems more positive and at last moving in a right direction.
For more news on the incoming TV deal, read below: https://lastwordonrugby.com/2018/08/12/tv-deal-offers-principality-premiership-revitalisation/
Main image credit : Robert Rees