Wales are one special night in Paris away from a 5th Grand Slam. To put this into perspective in the last 15 years: Ireland has done it twice, with England and France only doing it once. Although actual titles are a lot more even in recent years, Wales are the kings of the Slam. Yet, one area they come bottom of the pile is club success.
Currently, the four provinces in Ireland are ranked 1st-4th across both Conferences in the Guinness Pro14. This includes many demolition jobs against the Welsh sides. The question that underlies is how can their club sides be so average, yet the national side be constant record breakers? Alastair Telfer considers the sacrifices Welsh club rugby makes.
Culture of Welsh club rugby
Before the salary cap saga, Saracens in recent years dominated the European Champions Cup with three titles in four years. Most recently Exeter in 2020 joined Saracens to dine with the rest of the European royalty. The key members at this table of course include Leinster and Munster who pride themselves on their European success and now build their clubs on these foundations. No Welsh side has reached the final since Cardiff in 1995-1996, never mind won the competition. However, often the European pedigree and ego of these giants form a national divide.
The media make very clear the rivalry between Exeter and Saracens. Although this was not on a European stage, Rob Baxter and many of his players vocally stressed how they were robbed of numerous Premiership titles when the salary cap scandal came to light. Naturally, does this result in the best squad cohesion when they meet up in an international camp? Similarly, Rob Kearney in 2009 famously spoke out in an Irish team meeting about too many Munster players caring more about Munster than they did the green jersey. Is it a coincidence Ireland won the slam that year? – We think not!
Although it is easy to fix from the outside, changing a team’s culture is nearly impossible. Eddie Jones has chosen his core leadership group as Saracens men, having lots of the Exeter leaders alongside this would most definitely result in a clash of cultures. The exclusion of the Simmonds brothers is the case in point. Though, Wales are different. There is only one culture and goal – playing for Wales.
There is no doubt that around Wales the only thing that matters on a player’s rugby CV is how many Six Nations they have won. European cups or Pro14 titles are the least of everyone’s worries. There is a clear buy-in from all players to this culture. Jonathan Davis is a perfect example of a world-class player who went to Clermont in a bid to add a European Cup to his collection. Although the desire was there to do this, Davis ended up moving back to Scarlets as he felt playing in France at a higher level was hindering his international performances.
Alun Wyn Jones could also move in search of a European Cup or a league title. Nevertheless, there is a reason he has 147 caps, as the Welsh national jersey is his number one priority. Ireland tries to enforce a similar model, but it just doesn’t fit the same way. The 6-8 weeks in a Six Nations camp defines the Welsh players’ seasons, such buy-in is impossible when that period of time isn’t your be-all and end-all. Jones cries every time he sings the national anthem, an indication of why has not moved abroad.
The current Six Nations has seen Wales blood a bunch of new young players outside of the Welsh clubs. Louis Rees-Zammit and Callum Sheedy play for Gloucester and Bristol respectively, so they will have aspirations of Premiership success in the coming years alongside what looks to be Six Nations success. The key is that these players must understand Wales still comes first. The performances on the pitch so far are proving the buy-in to this worldview. In the near future, current contracts will become an issue, with moving back to Wales being an obligation that will be imposed upon them. Will this cause friction with their current clubs? Callum Sheedy for example is on a train set for the European summit. The answer is simple – once they play for Wales these players understand club success is a sacrifice. Although with rugby being the Welsh national sport, under the lights at the Principality Stadium is most of the population’s dream sporting moment. Meaning similar crops of talent will only keep being produced.
On the flip side, this current moment is a perfect opportunity to invest in the Welsh clubs. Making them great again. The Ospreys from 2008-2012 had Lions stars everywhere from Shane Williams and Tommy Bowe to Mike Phillips and Adam Jones. Many argue this side should have won more than a couple of Magners League titles. Talent is now produced elsewhere and once reinvested will only make the Welsh sides better again. Plus, once your stripes have been proven the option to play away from Wales like Dan Biggar and Taulupe Faletau is there. This system works perfectly for a nation like Wales, as experienced stars can still complete their trophy cabinet.
One final question remains: can Wales get to a stage where they are winning both at club and international level? The answer will come down to the players themselves. There is no denying that the talent is there individually. However, is chasing European and club glory at Welsh club rugby level going to help provide more chance of winning another Grand Slam? The answer is simple – no! You become a Welsh legend by winning Grand Slam after Grand Slam. Louis Rees-Zammit and Callum Sheedy would settle for just being Welsh legends. Wouldn’t you?
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