Why the Welsh rugby regions are falling behind

Welsh rugby regions
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The Welsh rugby regions are falling behind in regional competitions. New correspondent Iestyn Rhys Thomas tracks the changes through the years.

Every time during international Test windows in Wales, all you hear about is rugby, rugby and the odd splash of rugby. Yet after the Six Nations has been decided or another autumn campaign comes to an end, many people in Wales turn their attentions to other things.

There are a few supporters who head back to support one of the four Welsh regions. However, attendance in recent seasons has been declining and you’d have to go back to 2018 for the last time silverware reached a Welsh region.

The most recent league title came in the 2016/17 season where the Scarlets came out of nowhere and stunned both Leinster and Munster in successive weekends. In 2019, the Ospreys were the sole representative in the Heineken Champions Cup and got ripped apart by Saracens, Munster and Racing 92 as they went winless.

Meanwhile, Warren Gatland took the national side to his third Grand Slam and a fourth-place finish in the Rugby World Cup in his final season in charge as national head coach.

During this current campaign, none of the four regions have set the world alight in the United Rugby Championship or either European competitions.

Welsh rugby regions falling behind

So, what are the issues and can they be resolved?

The pre-professionalism structure

Before rugby turned professional in 1995, Welsh rugby consisted of the national side that would play in Cardiff and club sides dotted around the land.

In the 1970s everyone fell in love with Wales due to the terrific and exciting brand of rugby they would play with the likes of JPR Williams, Phill Bennett, Barry John and Gareth Edwards.

But in the 1980s the decline had already started for Wales although a third-place finish in the inaugural Rugby World Cup did salvage hope.

However, the 1990s was a torrid time for Wales as they slipped well below their best and were branded as the “worst team in the world” after a 96-13 defeat to South Africa in 1998.

Something had to change with Welsh rugby.

In come the regions

The suggestion initially came in 2001 by then Welsh coach Graham Henry as he had concerns about the club system, Henry had first-hand experience with how New Zealand have managed to integrate from the club game into the provincial structure that was set up.

Henry left his post as Welsh coach in February 2002 but his replacement Steve Hansen favoured the option of having four regional sides.

After many months of battle between the Welsh rugby union and the clubs, on the first of April 2003 it was announced that five regions would be created.

So, the Llanelli Scarlets, Cardiff Blues, Gwent Dragons, a merge between Neath and Swansea to create the Neath-Swansea Ospreys and the Celtic Warriors who would have been a merge of Bridgend and Pontypridd. Unfortunately at the end of the first season, the Warriors had to be disbanded due to financial issues.

The success

A new era of Welsh rugby started off well. Scarlets and Ospreys won Celtic league titles in 2004 and 2005 while Wales won their first Six Nations grand slam in 27 years under the guidance of Mike Ruddock.

Despite a blip for the national side in 2007 as they got knocked out of the Rugby World Cup by Fiji, the regions were doing well with the Ospreys winning the Magners league in 2007 and reaching the final of the Anglo-Welsh Cup.

Before going one step further in 2008 while the Cardiff Blues won the cup in 2009 while going to the semi-final of the Heineken Cup but lost in a penalty shootout to the Leicester Tigers.

In 2010 and 2012 the Ospreys won the league in Leinster which at the time meant they were the most successful side in the league with four titles.

Most recently, it has been the Scarlets that have brought success to the Welsh regions with their second league title in 2017 before reaching the Champions Cup semi-final the following year.

The failure

On the other hand there have been plenty of worries regarding the Welsh regions, no region has been competitive in the league since 2018 and most of the time the regions are fighting to make sure that they get into the Champions Cup for the following season.

Despite Cardiff winning the Challenge Cup in 2018, there hasn’t been much else to talk about surrounding Welsh rugby, except from project reset, which nearly saw the Ospreys and Scarlets merge in 2019 – in the middle of a Six Nations campaign.

The worrying issue for the regions is that attendances across all four sides have decreased in recent years while the national side still continues to get well over 50,000 at every international fixture.

So what does need to change?

Firstly, and most importantly, funding is still a big issue in the game and the contractual agreement between the regions and the WRU is heavily underfunded and hopefully, in the future, it will be addressed.

Yet, there are some weird and wonderful calls from some Welsh supporters, some want the four regions to be scrapped completely and the clubs return like the good old days of Welsh rugby, but there is an issue with that.

We see calls from supporters who are still upset about their local club not getting a regional side back in 2003, some supporters need to completely forget about the past and look towards the future.

People seem to forget that the most successful era of Welsh rugby has been down to this structure created and the regions providing players for the national side.

Yes, the regions have struggled over recent years but with a bit more funding from the union and many supporters forgetting the so-called “good old days” of the clubs, they should turn their attention to the now and the future and get behind the four regions – not sit on their chairs at home and blast them on social media.

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