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FEATURE 'Life is tough': Patience the watchword for Welsh regions

'Life is tough': Patience the watchword for Welsh regions
6 months ago

Welsh rugby has long been a place for strong opinions. The memory drifts back to the early days of professionalism when the then Swansea forward Paul Moriarty happened to mention that he felt the grass at Aberavon’s Talbot Athletic Ground had been a touch too long for a pre-season friendly.

The comment duly appeared in print, with the response that followed not exactly temperate. “If Moriarty feels so strongly about the length of our grass, tell him to get over here with a fucking shears and cut it himself,” shot back a Wizards’ insider.

Happy days. A book could be filled with similar examples.

But this season is different, with plenty willing to refrain from shooting from the lip amid the difficult circumstances in which the top-level Welsh game finds itself. Call it cutting the regions a degree of slack. They certainly need some.

‘Under the pump’ barely covers it, with the four teams operating to a salary cap and many players having departed. The quartet all face brutal tests of depth and are in the bottom six of the United Rugby Championship table, with both Italian clubs above them.

Ospreys' <a href=
Max Nagy is tackled by Glasgow’s Sione Tuipulotu and Richie Gray” width=”1200″ height=”800″ /> Ospreys have claimed the only two URC wins by Welsh teams against opponents from other countries, but have lost their last two games (Photo Athena Pictures/Getty Images)
There have been just two wins against teams from other countries so far in 2023-24. To add to their woes, Cardiff, Dragons, Ospreys and Scarlets are also hampered by debt passed onto them via loans during Covid. If it’s not quite The Grapes of Wrath, it’s a long way removed from life on Easy Street.

Plenty believe the Welsh Rugby Union haven’t covered themselves in glory in all this, and we are talking serious understatement there.

News that the governing body paid out £1.9 million to departing employees over a chaotic 12-month period, including £480,000 to former chief executive Steve Phillips, has left some imagining a parallel universe in which that kind of dosh found its way into the coffers of the professional teams to top up current funding levels.

 

Is there enough cash to fund four competitive teams? Is there enough quality to fill those sides? If a region is to be done away with, which one should it be?

 

Phillips, you may remember, did not leave amid repeated choruses of For He’s a Jolly Good Fellow and with applause ringing from every corner of the Welsh game. Indeed, he resigned after a BBC documentary aired allegations of a “toxic” culture at the union.

Just one of the jobs of the new brigade at the union, then, will be to oversee a radical shift in attitudes and the way things are done at the governing body. Another will be to sort out the regional mess.

The arguments seem to have been debated for longer than the Schleswig-Holstein question. Is there enough cash to fund four competitive teams? Is there enough quality to fill those sides? If a region is to be done away with, which one should it be? And how would the WRU avoid disenfranchising supporters and disengaging youngsters from rugby in that particular part of the country?

Rio Dyer celebrates a try for Dragons
Rio Dyer has continued his World Cup form for the Dragons in one bright spot for the Welsh game (Photo Athena Pictures/Getty Images)

Those are not easy questions to answer. But right now, let’s just say defenders of the status quo are having a tough job convincing others of the merits of their case.

That said, some will argue it’s unfair that the pro teams are saddled with the long-term Covid-loan debt, perhaps reasoning that they have enough problems without it. They absolutely have a point there. It’s akin to lumping a sack of spuds on the back of a man with sciatica. But it’s where the regions are at: life is tough.

 

At least there’s a derby for supporters in the west to look forward to this weekend, but neither Ospreys nor Scarlets will head into the game brimming with confidence.

 

Maybe at some point in the future they will be debt-free and a British and Irish League will dawn, sparking fresh interest on the western side of the River Severn and helping to swell attendances. Maybe, too, players will not see the need to depart to England or France. For the time being, though, all that is dreamland.

The Welsh four will plough on, doing what they can to finish above each other in the URC, with more significant prizes seemingly as far away as ever.

At least there’s a derby for supporters in the west to look forward to this weekend, with the Ospreys hosting the Scarlets on Sunday, but neither side will head into the game brimming with confidence.

The Ospreys are coming off a 20-5 defeat at the hands of the Dragons at Rodney Parade. It was the home team’s first win in Newport in the URC for more than a year, and the visitors could have zero complaints.

The Llandarcy-based team’s defence was porous, their discipline poor and their forwards failed to dominate, while they offered little in attack. Indeed, their run-on XV beat just one more defender than the nine that Dragons wing Rio Dyer managed to zoom past on his own.

An understrength Scarlets side didn’t lack for spirit against Leinster in Dublin – but still ended up losing 52-5. It said much that some outside the camp had been fearing an even heavier defeat.

The Dragons will at least take some momentum out to South Africa for their date with the Sharks. Dyer, Cai Evans, Bradley Roberts and Rhodri Williams drove them to victory over the Ospreys. Evans took the man-of-the-match award but it could have gone to any one of the four. Dyer terrorised his opponents almost every time he touched the ball, Williams was quick in thought and deed and Roberts positively fizzed with energy.

Mason Grady scores a try for Cardiff
Mason Grady’s try helped Cardiff beat Dragons in Newport last month, but it is their only URC victory so far (Photo Huw Fairclough/Getty Images)

What of Cardiff? They are a better side than their results suggest. Mason Grady performed well against Zebre, along with Cameron Winnett and Lopeti Timani, but the team could do with a win after picking up just one success from five outings. There is an identifiable playing style under Matt Sherratt, though, which offers hope for the rest of the season.

Warren Gatland would have doubtless also kept an eye on the encounter between Exeter Chiefs and Gloucester. The 20-year-old Welsh lock Dafydd Jenkins banged in a performance that belied his years, while Louis-Rees Zammit crossed for the opposition but the player-of-the-game accolade went to Joe Hawkins.

Unsurprisingly, there were plenty afterwards lamenting the young centre being off limits to his country under the Welsh game’s selection policy on exiled players. “He should be playing international rugby,” ran one text this writer received.

 

Patience will have to be the watchword, as it will for Welsh professional rugby as a whole as it comes to terms with its challenging circumstances.

Maybe he should, but he had previously been quiet at the Devon club after his move from the Ospreys, and he now needs to back up his effort against the Cherry and Whites. A single strong show, after all, counts for only so much. As Trigger said of Gandhi, he made one great film and then you never saw him again.

Seriously, the likeable Hawkins has big potential and his day as a Test player will come again. But not while the 25-cap rule is in place. He will just have to bide his time, and so will Wales.

Patience will have to be the watchword, as it will for Welsh professional rugby as a whole as it comes to terms with its challenging circumstances.

Will the regions find what they are looking for? Nothing is certain on that front.

But hope costs nothing. It’s worth clinging onto.

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