The newly named Indigo Group Premiership will kick off in September, ahead of its professional counterparts. Chairman of the Premiership clubs and Ebbw Vale Jon Jones sat down to discuss the exciting road ahead in the league’s development.
Welsh Rugby Union – Premiership bond getting stronger
Despite heavy debate over the purpose of the Indigo Group Premiership in recent years and a lack of stability for the clubs, the recent talks between the Welsh Rugby Union and the clubs has become stronger, with both parties singing off the same hymn sheet.
Explaining the ongoing discussions Jon Jones said, “There’s been some robust conversations. It’s not 100% settled, we’ve got things to work through.
“They (WRU) are aware of that and we (Clubs) are aware of that but there’s a willingness to work through the issues and that’s very positive.
“Lots of things that have happened, the fixtures coming out so early, the timing of the start of the season and adapting it around the A team setup.”
Clubs pushing for a salary cap
The financial situation of the Indigo Group Premiership has been an issue that has marred the league over several seasons.
The cash employed to fund player wages is increasing and being forced up by internal competition.
Even threats of legal battles were raised over player contracts.
The clubs have finally got together to look at the viability of a salary cap in future seasons. This will help clubs stay more competitive and so the product is more exciting until the season end.
It can therefore generate better fan interest, a wider appeal and if required, a better development platform.
It’ll also, and the key point for Welsh rugby, force clubs into a more stable financial position.
Scottish Super Six competition needs refining
The new cross-border competition involving the top six Indigo Group Premiership sides from last season and the newly formed Scottish Super Six sides will be competed in at the end of this season.
It’ll be run in a league format but playing just the three home and away games against opposition from the other country.
Discussing the new competition Jones said, “We had a fairly intense meeting as a group of clubs to agree the qualification going forward as we don’t want to play at the end of the season in the future and that affected the way you qualified.
“For the Scottish competition, we were told there was no additional funding. With already cut funding, to ask us to go to Scotland and just do it on paid travel wasn’t possible.
“If you’re not paying players then you’ve still got coaches, physios, doctors and bills to pay which are associated with it. Ground hire and feeding teams etc.
“That wasn’t possible and we made that clear and in fairness the Union went away with the commitment to make that work and we’re satisfied with that commitment.”
Robert Rees understands that the WRU are willing to finance teams based on a 33-man squad.
This is still being discussed and Premiership clubs and WRU will look to see if it’s possible to increase that figure to 34 or 35.
Full season format
The domestic professional calendar won’t start until after the World Cup ends with a push towards a new global calendar. However, the Indigo Premiership will begin in September.
“The start of the season was the most fractious issue. At one point we were looking at starting well into October. After a few tweaks we’ve brought it back and ended up with a good compromise.
“We start the league. we’ve got a full cup round which guarantees everyone a fixture in September in the cup, then another fixture. We’ve got a two-week break but that allows for no interference for the finalists and semi-finalists in the A team setup.”
Premiership looking to develop financial status
Speaking about the financial future of the league Jon Jones explained, “September is the month that a lot of people go to rugby.
If you look at our (Ebbw Vale) gates in September they were very good, they’re less good in December and January as it’s a bit cold up here and people will stay in and watch games on TV.”
This has been a factor in why clubs wanted some direct cash as part of the deal. One, to compensate them for the loss of gate (estimated to be four figures) and two, to provide for their product and services.
Jones added, “There are issues on what the financial situation is in the Premiership that haven’t been settled yet. The plan was we’d get the season set out and then go on to discuss that.
“In the next stage we discuss what we do going forward. The financial side has to be more stable for the clubs and that’s one thing that isn’t 100% done. There’s a willingness to talk and this time last year that wasn’t there.
“Similarly with the Scottish competition there are a few issues to be resolved with it, but now we know the six who are in it, it allows the WRU to plan with their Scottish counterparts and it allows the clubs to plan and agree with what we need.
“We supply the WRU with a list of costs which are criteria related which need to be covered for that tournament.”
TV deal was vital for “Indigo Group Premiership survival”
“The exposure was absolutely crucial for the survival of the Premiership going forward. What it did was take away the myths that had been propagated that it was a poor standard and very few academy or professionals will come from it.
“By being on live TV, it gave a greater audience to the style of rugby, it’s enjoyable to watch and that was essential to the clubs.
“The BBC Friday night has been fantastic for us on that level.”
It’s not all good for the clubs though with gate figures down.
“I don’t think you’ll find a Chairman who says it doesn’t have a negative effect on the gate. Your core support will come regardless of the weather but what you lose is the floating support and the away support.
“You don’t see quite as many supporters when it’s a TV game. I noticed from our perspective as a club when we travel away on a TV game that there’re less of our guys there because it’s a Friday night and tight to make after work.
“We don’t receive any direct funding. There are indirect ways we benefit; in terms of sponsorship we are getting more interest in sponsoring than we have previously as people have seen it on TV.”
Commercial Director will improve viability of Indigo Group Premiership
The WRU and clubs are looking at bringing in a Commercial Director to help improve the financial sustainability of the league.
The director would be WRU employed and there’s a hope they could be in post by Christmas.
Explaining the motive behind the position Jones said, “If the commercial person comes in and is good at what they do then it’ll take us a long way down the right road. We’ve got to give that time and allow space for that to happen.
“It’s refreshing that the WRU are putting that person in place. Clubs have seen the job specification, so we’ve been involved.
“A couple of us who have experience in that kind of thing have looked at it and hopefully that person can come in and help the clubs.
“Clubs are made up of volunteers and not many clubs will have a volunteer who have marketing and commercial skills. It’s time consuming.
“To get one sponsor you may have to make eight calls and if you’re doing that around your day job and social life it can be very difficult.”
Extra revenue streams being explored
“The BBC have brought up one or two things. They suggested on-pitch advertising which would then go into a central pool which we could share out as clubs.” Said Jones.
“We all operate in a world where there isn’t enough money. Professional Rugby hasn’t got enough money and that goes right down to grass roots and semi-professional place.
“All Premiership clubs have a degree of sympathy for that and we want to work together to ensure we aren’t Oliver with a bowl every year.”
Martyn Phillips’ role in the process
“Martyn hasn’t been that involved in the last six to eight months. It’s Rob Butcher [Chairman of the Community Board] and Geraint John [Community Director].” Explained Jones.
He added, “Martyn was heavily involved in the process that took place last year and it’s fair to say we didn’t agree with that process. The relationship is decent. We haven’t got an axe to grind with any individual or the union.
“The U23/A league has moved away from what it was initially batched as. Which we felt would happen. We’ve supported it and we never had a problem with it.
“If the people who run professional rugby in Wales believe it’s the right thing to do then you have to trust that.
Regional player drop-ins
Last year in Gwent the Dragons held a draft system where players would be selected by clubs that could then be called upon if they weren’t playing for their region or country.
This season will be slightly different with only two Gwent teams left in the top flight after the relegation of Cross Keys, Bargoed and Bedwas.
This means that some of the younger, less experienced academy players may end up in the Championship for game time.
Speaking about the club benefits of having regional players dropped in Jones said, “We do benefit from having the likes of Aneurin Owen, Dafydd Howells and Chris Coleman.
“It’s the same across the league. The guys who came through here like Harri Keddie still come here and watch.
“In terms of the Dragons, Bernard Jackman did a really good job of saying this needs to be done fairly and putting on the draft system.
“This is how it’s going to work, we all agreed and how we selected players, legacy players (Regional players to have played 30+ games for the Dragons who came through that club would be drafted to their old side) etc.
“That worked fine and what it meant is you didn’t see players hopping around clubs. You knew what was available, you knew some of those would be with Wales U20s and Sevens and so would be unavailable a lot but when they were available you could use them.
“There’s always a balance between your own squad and that. Quite often you’re dropping a player who’s had three or four good games for you and you’re dropping him and putting in a regional player.
“You have to manage that and experienced coaches like Greg Woods, Justin Burnell and Dale McIntosh can do that.
“You have to trust in those guys to manage that situation with the region and have a common sense approach. It’s refreshing for our boys to get someone in from the outside and it helps.
“We had [Aneurin] Owen a lot last year who is a classy young centre. It’s good for him and it’s good for us. He goes away and does three months at U20 level so there’s plenty of time for our boys in a long season.
“We realise as well that if three tightheads go down then Coleman is going to be on the bench and not with Ebbw Vale and we need to backfill that with local boys.”
With pre-season training already underway ahead of the 2019/20 Indigo Group Premiership, it’s going to be another enthralling tale of Welsh rugby.
“Main photo credit”