Welsh Regions and Pro Rugby Wales (PRW) has had its ups and downs in recent weeks and months, but Welsh rugby must look forward not backwards if it is going to succeed – how this is done is the scenario needing conquering.
It must be stressed these ideas will have to be implemented over a certain length of time and will not be completed at a click of a finger. Some may take a bit of investment of give from one side or another, but long term for the sustainability of Pro Rugby in Wales it must be said that these ideas can be the best way forward.
Financial steps are perhaps the biggest step into improving PRW, however pure investment from the Welsh Rugby Union (WRU) will resolve this problem directly or long term, as well as it not being viable.
One agreement that could help finance is the ”Rugby services agreement (RSA)”. This holds many agreements between the WRU and PRW with some financial parts included.
In total the RSA delivers £8.7m per annum to the regions, with a ”complex matrix of funding also guaranteeing a further £3.6m in loan facilities repayable during the term of the RSA… each region also receives a one-off £500,000 payment on signature of the new RSA.”
This sign on fee could probably be slightly increased due to the WRU still holding a pre-exceptional profit after tax of £2.3m in the year ending 2015. An increase of say £250,000 per region, so £1m overall could be viable as it still leaves the WRU with a profit. Outside bodies cannot speak on behalf on the WRU or PRW, but personally this sort of sign on fee can be agreed upon.
The overall sum could see a rise, but this would depend on if the sign on fee rises. If the sign on fee rises by the above amount stated then the funding given to Regions would probably rise to no more than £9m. However if this signing on amount doesn’t increase then it could be haggled for more and upwards to around £9.5m perhaps, with a heavier emphasis on NDCs (national dual contracts) then this could be the tool for getting more funding off the WRU.
This is up for renewal from April 2019.
In 2018 the PRO12 TV deal comes up for renewal and this is probably the most crucial financial part of moving onwards it must be said with perhaps such a large amount potentially riding on it. The current amount if rumoured to be around £12m to the league, however this may not be totally accurate as the official figures were never released by the leagues organisers.
SKY have been rumoured to want a league with London Welsh and London Scottish in it, but would this mean a PRO14 or a PRO12 with no Italians who are full members of the league? Personally scrapping the Italians at this stage or the next nearest stage possible and allowing both exile clubs to build up to a top professional standard and introduce them once they are developed is a better way forward. This not only would benefit Pro Rugby Wales but the whole league as well, so it is a viable option to think about for all parties involved. Of course with the current relegation of London Irish if they feel as if they will not be challenging as soon as possible for promotion once again, they too could be an option to look at unlikely as it may be.
The other league option is to look into an Anglo-Welsh league. They don’t want, or require a Welsh team in their Premiership, so perhaps a second tier league with the ”London” team exiles (Welsh ,Scottish, Irish), Leeds Carnegie, Bristol, Bedford et al. Again there are rumours of big brand companies perhaps favouring this set-up, many broadcasters would want this league with so much competition within itself. The problems with this, however, is would they (other clubs and RFU) take a Welsh club in? We would need to become RFU members to do this and so would they accept our bid, if we were able to dissociate ourselves with the WRU, but even then we lose the majority of funding. This option is not particularly viable and so lets look at options including our current union, league and set-up.
The new league deal or TV deal of some kind could help PRW fight for better kick off times e.g. as Tom and Phil have kindly shown with PRO12 sides , kick off times and days can help with crowds at the game as well as watching from home. Friday games, usually evening kick off are not really family friendly, but are usually ok with bringing in the crowds, as the Cardiff Blues have shown with average Friday crowds of 7,374 since they began playing in 2003. Saturday averages are up at 8,258 and are probably the kick offs that would need to be fought for most is possible. Sundays are the other major day for games and since being implemented in 2003 the average Sunday crowd reaches 8,330. Sundays are good for local fans, however for fans from afar travel to the ground maybe slightly difficult.
All figures for Regions can be found here.
All figures in link above are thanks to Tom and Phil and I thank them in their allowance of me using their statistics.
A TV deal will only go so far and the correct marketing will be a move the Regions look to snap up on. This is something that the Ospreys, Scarlets and Blues have all done pretty well over their tenure or in recent times. The Dragons need to re-think their strategy however with someone recently pointing out on social media that you cannot buy a Newport Gwent Dragons in Cwmbran yet you can purchase an Ospreys shirt. This doesn’t make sense from the Dragons point of view, surely with dwindling crowds they would really try and get their name and brand out their to pull some extra income and support back to Rodney Parade.
The way to increase this marketing would be to get out into the community that each Region covers and do some open days at clubs, or get out into town and city centres promoting your team. Cardiff and the Ospreys have always had good success in this department, but always doing more could be an option to gain more success in crowd increases which would also see income rise.
Crucially the Regions and clubs cannot be linked in marketing and branding as the audience is way to small, if they want to fight it will cause more people to buy merchandise as well as looking to push their side on in support at games. Its a hard one but less links between the Regions and their regional clubs will make fans want to buy their own merchandise more; especially shirts.
The last of the financial points to make is political as well. It is well known that when the then Gwent Dragons was to be played and owned by Newport RFC and Ebbw Vale RFC, however this plan did not sell in Newport with less than 50 season tickets being ordered from the city counterpart. They then fully moved to Newport and Marcus Russell after a lengthy legal battle ended his association with the Region. This mess has continued for nearly 14 years and needs resolving. The way forward could go two ways :
1). Newport Gwent Dragons (NGD) to lose Newport and Gwent name and just be the Dragons. This would help with branding with no geographical location leaving out any sets of fans. This is the only way forward in my humble view as they need to go down a route of the Ospreys with no location status. The Gwent and Newport name has both contributed to problems and to get rid of it is a way to move the valleys pro team on. This however could upset Newport season ticket holders of which is the majority. Looking at the financial side of this however, it could see an influx on new fans who never liked the geographical status of their representational pro team as well as retaining many fans who mostly go there to watch rugby not just for the name. This could also be looked at as an opportunity to expand and community bond. The new owners could look into playing ”lesser” games against sides from Italy say around Gwent whether they be at Eugene Cross Park in Ebbw Vale or over in Ystrad Mynach where the current Premiership elect side is based.
Yes this would lose some of the corporate money, but crowds for these sort of games wouldn’t be lower by much and the fans gained by doing this would put money back into the Region over time with their support.
2). Option two is less favourable and likely as it would include the NGDs losing the Gwent name and running like the Cardiff Blues as just the city. This would probably have to move Newport RFC into an A side and take them out of the Welsh premiership and is not an idea many would favour although it could be looked at. More on this topic a bit later on.
DEVELOPING ON THE PITCH
To Help develop Regions we must lose the ”two bites at the cherry” clubs e.g. Cardiff RFC, Newport RFC and Lanelli RFC. To run two clubs is not efficient and always being able to push players into these sides to give pro players who are returning from injury game-time is not fair, especially on the other semi-pro clubs.
They should then turn them into academy/A sides, which is nearer to what Cardiff Blues are doing with Cardiff RFC to put it simply. These sides should then be made into A sides properly and apply to play in the A league in England with the Aviva Premiership A Sides. This could focus more on development then and produce more players for the Regions. There must be huge importance of having aims when it comes to these A sides otherwise we have no development. The British and Irish cup is a prime example for this. Either have this for clubs to play as an elite competition for themselves or use it to develop the next generation of players with proper A sides, not all this rubbish Premiership select nonsense that has no aims, no chance of success and is neither here nor there.
Pro Rugby Wales must get its Regions looking towards utilising Welsh talent from their academies and Principality Premiership sides as there are valuable players in both set ups. The Dragons need to do this more and rebuild getting rid of dead wood players such as Dorian Jones and Stankovich. They need to bring in more young lads that are good and can develop into pro level players. They have done it sometimes, but not often enough with Angus O’Brien and Carl Meyer being good examples of how effective this system can work.
Not only will this improve standards long term, but it saves money being wasted on dead wood players that are taking the Region in circles but it will free up more money to either retain Welsh internationals or bring in more ”marquee” signings. This is a long term plan as these players wont just bond overnight and before any sort of marquee signing is made the region will have to be a lot more successful than it currently is having.
To help retain and get back key Welsh names in the Pro Rugby Wales circuit the WRU will be key. Raising the current £4.5m salary cap is the way forward in this , but creating more money for National Dual Contracts (NDCs ) could be. Any increase in the amount set forward for these contracts could depend on or be in the RSA as mentioned earlier and so it is hard to really put a figure on the amounts the WRU and Regions would need to set aside for this. To at least try and bring home players like George North, Luke Charteris and Talaupe Faletau.
These marquee players can also influence whether big name sponsors want to invest in that Region. Regions commercialising their ground and getting a big name sponsor like the Cardiff Blues have done for their ground is another great move to make; the BT sport Arms Park. This increases income massively which for PRW is massive. The Ospreys don’t need this so much due to their three way split with the stadium lease company and Swansea City FC, but for the Dragons and Scarlets its an alley that needs venturing down.
To help develop each Region I think there should be a set player limit on foreign talent, to aid development for our own country and to make our own player development pathway (PDP) more successful than it currently is. This limit would cover players from another country, but also players over the age of 32 as well. This topic has been covered in the past and you can read about it further here
To be able to cater for as many fans as possible there needs to be some extra research undertaken in the region. This can be done in the form of a poll, or two. To find out what current fans want to support and to see what potential fan base is within that Regions geographical location to lure in for their side. The poll for potential fans could be used by the Dragons for example to see if fans higher up in the Gwent valleys want inclusion any more and how they would want to be included. This poll could be completed at games played at Bedwas, Cross Keys, Pontypool and Ebbw Vale and this would give a good all round balance of what fans want.
This could find out if they wanted games played nearer them or find out if a name change would get them to watch games. At the same time of this happening they would need to complete one for current fans to see if a name change or some games like the Italian ties being played around Gwent if possible would alter their views on watching their Region.
Yes this would cost a bit of money, but it would gain it back in the results it would gather as they could change, alter and cater for a larger fan base potentially if this goes right and they make adequate changes.
Crucially the regions are not going to be changing any time soon in who they cover geographically and where they are based, therefore creditable and realistic moves must be made to improve Pro Rugby Wales with what we currently have. In doing this the current system can be improved.