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Eddie Butler thinks Welsh rugby should divorce URC

By Ian Cameron
Gareth Anscombe of Ospreys during the United Rugby Championship match between DHL Stormers and Ospreys at DHL Stadium on April 02, 2022 in Cape Town, South Africa. (Photo by Ashley Vlotman/Gallo Images/Getty Images)

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Rugby pundit and commentator Eddie Butler has thrown the cat among the pigeons by suggesting that Welsh rugby might be best placed to walk away from the United Rugby Championship (URC).

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The Welsh regions have endured a season from hell both in Europe and domestically. Not one Welsh side finished in the top eight of the URC table, while wins in Europe were like hens’ teeth for all four sides.

Humiliating results haven’t been as rare, with Cardiff’s capitulation in Italy last month – they were walloped 69 – 21 by Benetton Treviso – seen as something of a bell-weather for just had bad things have got.

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Battling The Poisonous Welsh Press & An Epic International Comeback | RugbyPass Offload | Episode 37
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Battling The Poisonous Welsh Press & An Epic International Comeback | RugbyPass Offload | Episode 37

The national picture isn’t much healthier, with Wales finishing 5th in the Guinness Six Nations. A final loss to Italy in Cardiff rounded off a miserable Test campaign for Wales since lifting the trophy just one year previously. They now face the bleak prospect of a three Test tour of South Africa and the risk of a 3- 0 drubbing at the hands of the world champion Springboks.

Against this seeming decline, Gareth Bale’s Wales are flying high in the round ball game, qualifying for the FIFA World Cup earlier this week. Many are now – quite legitimately – asking has rugby become the nation’s second sport?

Now former Wales No.8 Butler has suggested in The Rugby Paper podcast an exit from the URC could be the drastic step Welsh rugby needs to turn around its fortunes.

“On the other hand, we’ve got two standalone regions – Llanelli, the Scarlets and Cardiff, formerly known as the Blues. They are still basically standalone clubs and they can’t cut it. What’s more, they can’t deliver a crowd and that’s the huge thing, if you don’t have a sense of theatre.

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“One of the reasons the Gallagher Premiership looks better is because it plays to full houses and you get that full sense of theatre and drama that goes with the full on sporting occasion. In Wales, wherever the television camera pans and whatever angle you try, you’re always conscious that there are rows and rows of empty seats, and it simply doesn’t help.

“So you’ve got to look for a new model. Then you come slap into the problem of ‘okay, if you bring down the regional system, what do you replace it with?’ And nobody is really clear.

“You could say that Cardiff and Llanelli are the standalone models and they’re not working. So what does work? I think we’re reaching the point now where Wales has to contemplate just leaving the URC.

“If South Africa is forced to go it alone, then it goes back to the Currie Cup. Well, Wales might have to contemplate just going back to being Welsh.”

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Butler – who frequently works for the URC – suggests regressing to the old Welsh club format and for professional players to potentially find clubs in the Gallagher Premiership or further afield.

“We’ve reached that point now where we’ve got to think smaller, export big. If our system isn’t good enough for fully fledged professionals then we have to be able to release them to go and ply their trade elsewhere.

“Then we just enjoy what Welsh rugby is for the time being. It’s vibrant, it’s inventive, it’s creative. We’re so mired in gloom at the moment that we’ve forgotten what it is to have fun. It’s so obvious at the moment that footballers are having fun and the Welsh [rugby] players are not playing with much of a smile on their face.”

His words sparked a lively debate, some agreeing with him and some vehemently disagreeing.

“Some in Welsh rugby seem obsessed with going backwards,” wrote Paul Williams. I think we should go back to 48 Welsh village teams. All chasing either a ball of cheese, or a stuffed sheep’s head, around the village green.”

Cardiff Rugby Life wrote: “I didn’t have “Eddie Butler advocates an end to professional rugby in Wales” on my Thursday bingo card. At some point we should probably stop giving a platform to former players who are talking out of their arse. See Butler, Aled Brew and Andrew Coombs for starting examples.”

Others praised Butler for at least trying to tackle a tricky problem for one of the world’s strongest playing nations.

Rugby analyst GJPowell wrote: “Eddie Butler at least confronts some of the core issues. The reality is that Welsh rugby, unlike other Tier 1 nations, is not in agreement over what it is and how it should be structured. Especially at the perpetually struggling lower (non-Test) tier of the professional game.”

Butler is the only Welsh voice that has been critical of the URC, with former Wales captain Sam Warburton recently describing SA involvement in the league as creating a competition that appears like a ‘randomn mix of clubs’. “There’s no doubting their [SA teams] ability. Fantastic rugby nation. League just doesn’t make sense and looks a random mix and match of clubs.”

Unlike in Ireland and Scotland where their union-controlled sides have largely prospered since the league inception, Welsh sentiment towards the URC has always been more ambivalent. A future outside the URC looks extremely unlikely for the Welsh, but there’s no escaping the conclusion that something radical needs to be done for sport to flourish once more.

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