With the news announced today that there is a possible outcome of peace for the game of rugby union in Europe, it’s worth taking a closer look at just how this affects the four Welsh regions that compete in the top competitions.
As the outbreak of fighting started amongst differing clubs and Unions months ago, the one thing that was perfectly clear for those who follow and have an interest in the game in Wales; if the status quo remained, the Welsh regions would struggle to survive.
That status quo would be remaining playing in the Pro12, whose faults are many and has never appealed massively to the Welsh public (although that’s another debate entirely), and to compete in the European cup, whilst being tied into a crippling Participation Agreement with the Welsh Rugby Union (WRU). The current fall out in Welsh rugby between the Regions and the WRU has come mainly from the current agreement whose terms appears to see the WRU happy to strangle the four Welsh regions into submission so that they are able to take full control over the game in Wales. They key word there is control, and note not governance which is what any governing body is actually charged with. The WRU’s inflexibility and lack of empathy during this dispute has largely contributed to the feeling of discord currently seen in many corners of the game in Wales.
What today’s meeting has revealed is that there is now a chance that an agreement on a new European competition is close to being agreed, so it would see the regions still playing in the Pro12 and again in a European cup, but this time run by the Six Nations committee instead of the hapless ERC. What is worth mentioning is that the Pro12 currently does not even have a sponsor for next season and there are rumours that the Italian teams may be withdrawing. Both are likely to see a decrease in funding to the regions which would see them markedly worse off under the “status quo”.
With regards to the European Cup, it is hard to make a judgement on whether it will provide any hope for the future for the regions or not, until more details are released. Most important to the regions’ futures will be the TV contracts. The English clubs (PRL) had negotiated a deal with BT for a new European competition which would have seen an increase of £1m each for the regions. Understandably given the financial situation in Wales, the regions were wholly supportive of this new competition, but the WRU refused to give their agreement. The other TV deal on offer was that of one with Sky, which ERC signed up to despite the English and French clubs having already served notice. That TV deal would not see the Welsh regions any better off.
What fans of the regional game in Wales will be hoping is that not only has a better TV deal been negotiated and agreed upon, but also that the other major sticking point of who has commercial control, the Unions or the clubs, has also been decided to fall in the clubs’ favour. Without an increase in TV revenue and the freedom to negotiate their own commercial contracts, the Regions would remain in the same helpless state and truly be struggling to survive.
To throw an extra spanner in the works, the Welsh regions are still to negotiate a new Participation or newly dubbed “Service” Agreement with the WRU. With the bitter dispute between them, it is hard to see how the WRU will be able to present an agreement that will be appealing to the regions, and with the possible reconciliation in the European game it is equally as difficult to see how the regions will be able to refuse to sign it. What is worrying for the fans of the game in Wales is that this will be another opportunity taken by the WRU to further smother the regional game in Wales which in recent months has been exactly what they have been fighting against. This is why the agreement as to who has commercial control and how revenue is split in this new European competition is so important to the regions. If they do not have any control over it, it is close to game over not only for the regions but possibly the professional game in Wales.
So we potentially have peace across the game in Europe, but unless certain key aspects have fallen the regions’ way, we may also have seen the possible death knell of the regional game in Wales. Fans of the four regions will be waiting with bated breath for more details to be released and also praying for the impossible; that the WRU will finally take conciliatory action for the good of the game in Wales as a whole, instead of being focused solely on controlling the game ultimately to its own detriment.