'It's easy for the fans not to bother' - Shane Williams' stark assessment of Welsh regional rugby
Shane Williams can’t get his head around it. Tickets for Wales matches at the Principality Stadium are as rare as hen’s teeth, yet the local clubs which most of these very same players play for are largely ignored when it comes to the footfall through the turnstiles.
Take the stellar career of the legendary Alun-Wyn Jones. So much infectious love is evident for the iconic talisman whenever he wears the red of Wales. However, put him in the black or the white of the Ospreys and the reaction is very, very different. Thanks but no thanks.
The chastening numbers don’t lie. Whereas Wales consistently pack 72,000 into their riverside rugby cathedral in Cardiff, 6,812 was Ospreys’ average home crowd in last term’s PRO14, a figure that had collapsed to 5,545 prior to last night’s rare run-out away from the Liberty Stadium at the Gnoll.
Jones, of course, has yet to be involved this season with the Ospreys, the Wales skipper given an extended break to allow injury niggles from a monumental World Cup campaign to fully heal. But you catch the drift: the same Welsh people who are so very quick to express their adulation for Test rugby run the proverbial mile away from watching their ‘heroes’ up close on club duty.
What gives? “It’s easy for the fans not to bother because there are so many other things going on now,” shrugged Williams, the record Wales try-scorer, when asked by RugbyPass about the depressing regional rugby landscape. “They have got a football team to support. They have got local rugby and football and unfortunately in Wales, we have got a fickle nation. We do enjoy being victorious and we get very critical when things aren’t going our way.
(Continue reading below…)
“Sometimes it’s easier to sit in the house and watch it on Premier Sports than it is to get down to Liberty Stadium when it is soaking wet on a Saturday afternoon or a Friday evening. And then you have got the other sports to contend with, especially football, so it is difficult.
“I see it not only at regional rugby, I see it at grassroots rugby where there was a time when my boy was playing under-11s rugby and we could barely get nine or ten players to come out and play whereas with football they were scratching two sides together. It is a problem. It really is a problem.
“You almost think someone like Alun-Wyn deserves a full crowd every week,” he continued. “Especially with the effort and the performances he puts in for club and country and it is difficult to watch.
ICYMI: It was nearly three weeks ago when @heagneyl suggested the writing was on the wall for the Irishman at Ospreys…
– Now reports claims he has been released, although the club have yet to officially confirm they have parted ways https://t.co/csooWstxXM
— RugbyPass (@RugbyPass) November 26, 2019
“It’s for the players around Alun-Wyn to say ‘right, okay, enough is enough. We need to start performing, we need to start getting people interested in coming back into the stadiums again, we want bums on seats, we want the youngsters to want to go and watch Ospreys or the Scarlets or whatever and we can’t only rely on our top players’.
“The likes of Alun-Wyn, (Justin) Tipuric, the experiences of James Hook, we are relying on them a little bit too much. It’s about taking pride in your region, taking pride in your performances and only that will get you victories and only that well get you bums on seats.
“It is a shame. I’m sure Alun-Wyn won’t say anything about it but we want to see the likes of Alun-Wyn playing in full capacity grounds week in week out because he puts the effort in and he wants to win these games… at the moment it is quite dire.”
It was 2011 when Williams – the now 42-year-old who spent most of his club career at Ospreys having made the breakthrough at Neath – won the last of his 87 Wales caps. He remains a celebrity judging by the number of people who approached him for pictures at a Cardiff City stadium function last Wednesday.
He’d love it, though, if the attention was similarly hectic for current Ospreys players at the Liberty. Sceptics might say crowds don’t matter, that players are paid to play whatever their surroundings. But in issuing a rallying cry for people to come out and support, Williams is adamant an atmosphere makes a tangible difference.
“I would just say the boys need you,” he ventured when asked what could he say to convince people to get dressed up for the winter weather and make their way to either the Liberty, Parc Y Scarlets, Arms Park or Rodney Parade. These venues had attracted only a combined 65,037 for its dozen PRO14 matches this season before this weekend’s action was left in the shade by the mass gathering for Wales versus the Barbarians at Principality Stadium.
Struggling Welsh region Ospreys have boldly predicted a radical shake-up happening soon to the PRO14 and Premiership leagueshttps://t.co/TsTdAFW8s7
— RugbyPass (@RugbyPass) November 30, 2019
“They need the support, they need an atmosphere. We are doing everything we can to win these games. We don’t go out to try and lose and any kind of help would certainly make a difference. As a player, I remember playing in the Liberty Stadium in front of 18,500 supporters.
“The game was much easier than when it was in front of 2,000 on a Friday night where it was pouring down knowing that these people have come to watch us play and we are not playing well. It’s difficult. No one goes out to lose. We [regional rugby] is in a bad patch, especially at the Ospreys. Hopefully, we are trying our best to get out of it.”
It was 2003 when a blowtorch was taken to the Welsh set-up. Nine Welsh clubs had been involved in the underwhelming early days of the Celtic League but in a radical effort to become more competitive in that tournament and in Europe, five new regions were formulated, a number quickly cut to four with the disbandment of Celtic Warriors, an amalgamation of Pontypridd and Bridgend.
The revamp wasn’t universally popular but Williams still thinks all these years later it was the correct rejig for professional club rugby in Wales. “It was the right thing to do,” he insisted. “It was I suppose the best way for us to be successful in Europe. You had nine clubs and were quite saturated with players. Yes, you had good teams, good traditional historic teams that people are still supporting and of course they should.
“I was Neath through and through, However, a Neath or a Llanelli or a Pontypridd or a Cardiff would not have been pushing for silverware in Europe. I know we haven’t done that in the European Cup as such but we have done it in the Challenge Cup which goes to show we do have good players and good regions within our ranks. It has just been through a dire, dire couple of years where an example is we didn’t know last March if our regions were going to be amalgamating and becoming one, Scarlets in with the Ospreys. That doesn’t help matters.
“The fact that players don’t realise where their next contract is coming from has resulted in some players going across the bridge and we’re losing out on that side of it. It is sad. We have had a bad 24 months in Welsh regional rugby and hopefully that gets addressed now and we can move on because we do have some really good talent in Wales.
‘The players are all back next week and I’ll have to start selecting… back row is definitely somewhere we have genuine pressure’
– Dean Ryan tells @OwainJTJones about the welcome selection headaches he faces at unfancied @dragonsrugby https://t.co/3g11Efiux7
— RugbyPass (@RugbyPass) November 29, 2019
“We do have good youngsters coming through but at the moment it is very disjointed from your international players down to your academy players and it is a shame… starting from scratch again is great in hindsight, but when the regions did start we had a good template.
“We knew what we wanted to do and we got some really good players in the regions. I can only speak from experience. We had the likes of Tommy Bowe, Filo Tiatia, Marty Holah and these guys at the Ospreys. We do want to get our Welsh players back in Wales now and that is probably a priority, but we sometimes need a few headliners, players that are world experience, world-renowned, world-known that can also help the experience of a youngster coming through. We have fallen away from that.
“What else can you do? I’m a Neath man through and through and always will be and we need to work more closely with our clubs. There was a time when the Ospreys worked closely with Swansea, Aberavon, Neath and had almost like a feeder system coming through. That kind of fell away down to political nonsense. Hopefully, that is something that can bring back.
“We are very lucky there are some fantastic stadiums in Wales that we are unfortunately unable to fill at the moment. What do you do to change that? You need to start winning, need to start getting results and another flip side is you need to have the financing to do that as well.
“There are lots of things you would love to change, it’s just being in control and unfortunately we don’t have that in Wales at the moment. We don’t have the benefactors that the likes of the English Premiership or France have really and we are still playing catch-up.
“There is a lot of things that need to change. People want to see headliners, people want to see good players playing in the leagues, they want to see the youngsters coming through and performing but as far as I am concerned, it is about getting those victories.
“It will bring supporters, without a doubt. The endeavours are there, but there is just a lot of things missing at the moment.”
WATCH: RugbyPass went behind the scenes at Dragons during the Bernard Jackman era
Join RugbyPass+ now and be a part of the conversation with all-new commenting!