The Plight of Welsh Rugby

It being a rugby time of year, I thought I might once again cast my gaze over the world of rugby in general. Rugby is the sport I love, and the coming of professionalism has seen it become bigger, faster, and more of a spectacle than ever before. The game itself has, to my mind at least, greatly benefited from the coming of the professional age; but with professionalism comes money, and where there’s money there are problems.

Examples of how financial problems have ruined teams abound all over the world, from England (lead by the financial powerhouse of the RFU) to New Zealand (where player salary caps are, if I remember correctly, set at £50,000 to avoid bankrupting themselves). But the worst examples are to be found in Britain, specifically in Wales (and, to a lesser extent, Scotland).

Back in the day, Wales was the powerhouse of northern hemisphere rugby. Clubs like Bridgend, Pontypool and Llanelli, among others, churned out international-level stars at a quite astounding rate for such relatively small clubs. Amidst the valleys, rugby was a way of life, something that united whole communities who would turn out to watch their local clubs in fierce local derbies. And the results followed; despite England and France enjoying the benefit of far superior playing numbers, Wales were among the most successful sides in the then Five Nations Championship, Welsh sides were considered the major challenge for touring southern hemisphere sides, and the names of such Welsh greats as JPR Williams, Barry John, Phil Bennett and, most famous of the lot, Gareth Edwards, have resonated down the ages. Or at least the nostalgic rugby press tells me, since I wasn’t really in a position to notice at the time.

However, professionalism demands that clubs pay their players if they wish to keep hold of them, and that requires them to generate a not insignificant degree of income. Income requires fans, and more importantly a large number of fans who are willing and able to travel to games and pay good money for tickets and other paraphernalia, and this requires a team to be based in an area of sufficient population and wealth. This works best when clubs are based in and around large cities; but since rugby is a game centred around rolling around in a convenient acre of mud it does not always translate well to a city population. As such, many rugby heartlands tend to be fairly rural, and thus present major issues when considering a professional approach to the game. This was a major problem in Scotland; their greatest talent pool came from the borders region, home of such famous clubs as Melrose and Galashiels, but when the game went pro in 1995 the area only had a population of around 100,000 and was declining economically. For the SRU to try and support all their famous clubs would have been nigh-on impossible, since there are only so many potential fans to go around those many with proud rugby heritage in such a relatively small area, and to pick one club over another would have been a move far too dangerous to contemplate. So they opted for a regional model; here, the old clubs would form their own leagues to act as a talent pool for regional sides who would operate as big, centrally contracted, professional outfits. The idea was that everyone, regardless of their club of origin, would come together to back their region, the proud sum of its many parts; but in reality many consider regional sides to be rather soulless outfits without the heritage or locality to drum up support. In Scotland they formed four regions originally, but the Caledonia Reds (covering the vast, lowly populated area north of the major cities) were disbanded after just a season and the Border Reivers, sprung from Soctland’s rugby heartland, went in 2005 after poor results and worse attendances. Now only Edinburgh and Glasgow are left, doing what they can in places with all the money and none of the heritage.

Ireland also adopted the regional model, but there it was far less of a problem. Ireland (which for rugby purposes incorporates Northern Ireland as well) is a larger, more densely populated country than Scotland, and actually has four major cities to base its four regional sides in (Limerick, Galway, Belfast and Dublin, whose potential to grow into a rugby powerhouse, as the largest conurbation of people in Europe without a major football side, is huge). Not only that, but relatively few Irish clubs had garnered the fame and prestige of their fellow Celts, so the regions didn’t have so many heritage problems. And its shown; Ireland is now the most successful country in the Celtic League (or RaboDirect Pro12, to satisfy the sponsors), Leinster have won 3 Heineken Cups in 5 years, and just four years ago, the national side achieved their country’s second-ever Grand Slam.

But it was in Wales that rugby had the farthest to fall, and fall it did; without the financial, geographical and club structure advantages of England or the virgin potential of Ireland, Welsh fortunes have been topsy-turvy. Initially five regions were set up, but the Celtic Warriors folded after just a few seasons and left only four, covering the four south coast cities of Llanelli (Scarlets), Swansea (Ospreys), Newport (Dragons) and Cardiff. Unfortunately, these cities are not huge and are all very close to one another, giving them a small catchment area and very little sense of regional rivalry; since they are all, apparently, part of the same region. Their low population means the clubs struggle to support themselves from the city population, but without any sense of historic or community identity they find it even harder to build a dedicated fan base; and with the recent financial situation, with professional rugby living through its first depression as player wages continue to rise, these finances are getting stretched ever thinner.

Not only that, but all the old clubs, whilst they still exist, are losing out on the deal too. Whilst the prestige and heritage are still there, with the WRU’s and the rugby world’s collective focus on the regional teams’ top-level performance nobody cares about the clubs currently tussling it out in the Principality Premiership, and many of these communities have lost their connection with clubs that once very much belonged to the community. This loss of passion for the game on a local level may partly be inspired by the success of football clubs such as Swansea, enjoying an impressive degree of Premier League success. Many of these local clubs also have overspent in pursuit of success in the professional era, and with dwindling crowds this has come back to bite; some prestigious clubs have gone into administration and tumbled down the leagues, tarnishing a reputation and dignity that is, for some, the best thing they have left. Even the Welsh national team, so often a source of pride no matter what befalls the club game, has suffered over the last year, only recently breaking an eight-match losing streak that drew stark attention to the Welsh game’s ailing health.

The WRU can’t really win in this situation; it’s too invested in the regional model to scrap it without massive financial losses, and to try and invest in a club game would have stretch the region’s wallets even further than they are currently. And yet the regional model isn’t working brilliantly either, failing to regularly produce either the top-quality games that such a proud rugby nation deserves or sufficient money to support the game. Wales’ economic situation, in terms of population and overall wealth, is simply not ideally suited to the excesses of professional sport, and the game is suffering as a result. And there’s just about nothing the WRU can do about it, except to just keep on pushing and hoping that their regions will gather loyalty, prestige and (most importantly) cash in due time. Maybe the introduction of an IRB-enforced universal salary cap, an idea I have long supported, would help the Welsh, but it’s not a high-priority idea within the corridors of power. Let us just hope the situation somehow manages to resolve itself.

*”It is sweet and right to die for your country”

Patriotism is one of humankind’s odder traits, at least on the face of it. For many hundreds of years, dying in a war hundreds of miles away from home defending/stealing for what were, essentially, the business interests and egos of rich men too powerful to even acknowledge your existence was considered the absolute pinnacle of honour, the ultimate way to bridge the gap between this world and the next. This near-universal image of the valiance of dying for your country was heavily damaged by the first world war, near-crushing “the old lie: Dulce Et Decorum Est/Pro Patria Mori*” (to quote Wilfred Owen), but even nowadays soldiers fighting in a dubiously moral war that has killed far more people than the events it was ‘payback’ for are regarded as heroes, their deaths always granted both respect and news coverage (and rightly so). Both the existence and extent of patriotism become increasingly bizarre and prevalent when we look away from the field of conflict; national identity is one of the most hotly argued and defended topics we have, stereotypes and national slurs form the basis for a vast range of insults, and the level of passion and pride in ‘our’ people and teams on the sporting stage is quite staggering to behold (as the recent London 2012 games showed to a truly spectacular degree).

But… why? What’s the point? Why is ‘our’ country any better than everyone else’s, to us at least, just by virtue of us having been born there by chance? Why do we feel such a connection to a certain group of sportspeople, many of whom we might hate as people more than any of their competitors, simply because we share an accent? Why are we patriotic?

The source of the whole business may have its roots in my old friend, the hypothetical neolithic tribe. In such a situation, one so small that everybody knows and constantly interacts with everyone else, then pride in connection with the achievements of one’s tribe is understandable. Every achievement made by your tribe is of direct benefit to you, and is therefore worthy of celebration. Over an extended period of time, during which your tribe may enjoy a run of success, you start to develop a sense of pride that you are achieving so much, and that you are doing better than surrounding others.

This may, at least to a degree, have something to do with why we enjoy successes that are, on the scale of countries, wholly unconnected to us, but nonetheless are done in the name of our extended ‘tribe’. But what it doesn’t explain so well is the whole ‘through thick and thin mentality’- that of supporting your country’s endeavours throughout its failings as well as its successes, of continuing to salvage a vestige of pride even if your country’s name has been dragged through the mud.

We may find a clue to this by, once again, turning our attention to the sporting field, this time on the level of clubs (who, again, receive a level of support and devotion wholly out of proportion to their achievements, and who are a story in their own right). Fans are, obviously, always proud and passionate when their side is doing well- but just as important to be considered a ‘true’ fan is the ability to carry on supporting during the days when you’re bouncing along the bottom of the table praying to avoid relegation. Those who do not, either abandoning their side or switching allegiance to another, are considered akin to traitors, and when the good times return may be ostracized (or at least disrespected) for not having faith. We can apply this same idea to being proud of our country despite its poor behaviour and its failings- for how can we claim to be proud of our great achievements if we do not at least remain loyal to our country throughout its darkest moments?

But to me, the core of the whole business is simply a question of self-respect. Like it or not, our nationality is a huge part of our personal identity, a core segment of our identification and being that cannot be ignored by us, for it certainly will not be by others. We are, to a surprisingly large degree, identified by our country, and if we are to have a degree of pride in ourselves, a sense of our own worth and place, then we must take pride in all facets of our identity- not only that, but a massed front of people prepared to be proud of their nationality in and of itself gives us a reason, or at least part of one, to be proud of. It may be irrational, illogical and largely irrelevant, but taking pride in every pointless achievement made in the name of our nation is a natural part of identifying with and being proud of ourselves, and who we are.

My apologies for the slightly shorter than normal post today, I’ve been feeling a little run down today. I’ll try and make it up next time…

Scrum Solutions

First up- sorry I suddenly disappeared over last week. I was away, and although I’d planned to tell WordPress to publish a few for me (I have a backlog now and everything), I was unfortunately away from my computer on Saturday and could not do so. Sorry. Today I would like to follow on from last Wednesday’s post dealing with the problems faced in the modern rugby scrum, to discuss a few solutions that have been suggested for dealing with the issue, and even throw in a couple of ideas of my own. But first, I’d like to offer my thoughts to another topic that has sprung up amid the chaos of scrummaging discussions (mainly by rugby league fans): the place, value and even existence of the scrum.

As the modern game has got faster and more free-flowing, the key focus of the game of rugby union has shifted. Where once entire game plans were built around the scrum and (especially) lineout, nowadays the battle of the breakdown is the vital one, as is so ably demonstrated by the world’s current openside flanker population. Thus, the scrum is becoming less and less important as a tactical tool, and the extremists may argue that it is no more than a way to restart play. This is the exact situation that has been wholeheartedly embraced by rugby league, where lineouts are non-existent and scrums are an uncontested way of restarting play after a minor infringement. To some there is, therefore, something of a crossroads: do we as a game follow the league path of speed and fluidity at the expense of structure, or stick to our guns and keep the scrum (and set piece generally) as a core tenet of our game?

There is no denying that our modern play style, centred around fast rucks and ball-in-hand play, is certainly faster and more entertaining than its slow, sluggish predecessor, if only for the fans watching it, and has certainly helped transform rugby union into the fun, flowing spectators game we know and love today. However having said that, if we just wanted to watch players run with the ball and nothing else of any interest to happen, then we’d all just go and play rugby league, and whilst league is certainly a worthwhile sport (with, among other things, the most passionate fans of any sport on earth), there is no point trying to turn union into its clone. In any case, the extent to which league as a game has been simplified has meant that there are now hardly any infringements or stoppages to speak of and that a scrum is a very rare occurence. This is very much unlike its union cousin, and to do away with the scrum as a tool in the union code would perhaps not suit the game as well as it does in union. Thus, it is certainly worth at least trying to prevent the scrum turning into a dour affair of constant collapses and resets before everyone dies of boredom and we simply scrap the thing.

(I know I’ve probably broken my ‘no Views’ rule here, but I could go on all day about the various arguments and I’d like to get onto some solutions)

The main problem with the modern scrum according to the IRB concerns the engage procedure- arguing (as do many other people) that trying to restrain eight athletes straining to let rip their strength is a tough task for even the stoutest front rower, they have this year changed the engage procedure to omit the ‘pause’ instruction from the ‘crouch, touch, pause, engage’ sequence. Originally included to both help the early players structure their engagement (thus ensuring they didn’t have to spend too much time bent down too far) and to ensure the referee had control over the engagement, they are now arguing that it has no place in the modern game and that it is time to see what effect getting rid of it will have (they have also replaced the ‘engage’ instruction with ‘set’ to reduce confusion about which syllable to engage on).

Whether this will work or not is a matter of some debate. It’s certainly a nice idea- speaking as a forward myself, I can attest that giving the scrum time to wind itself up is perhaps not the best way to ensure they come together in a safe, controlled fashion. However, what this does do is place a lot of onus on the referee to get his timing right. If the ‘crouch, touch, set’ procedure is said too quickly, it can be guaranteed that one team will not have prepared themselves properly and the whole engagement will be a complete mess. Say it too slowly, and both sides will have got themselves all wound up and we’ll be back to square one again. I suppose we’ll all find out how well it works come the new season (although I do advise giving teams time to settle back in- I expect to see a lot of packs waiting for a split second on the ‘set’ instruction as they wait for the fourth command they are so used to)

Other solutions have also been put forward. Many advocate a new law demanding gripping areas on the shirts of front row players to ensure they have something to get hold of on modern, skintight shirts, although the implementation of such a law would undoubtedly be both expensive and rather chaotic for all concerned, which is presumably why the IRB didn’t go for it. With the increasing use and importance of the Television Match Official (TMO) in international matches, there are a few suggesting that both they and the line judge should be granted extra responsibilities at scrum time to ensure the referee’s attention is not distracted, but it is understandable that referees do not want to be patronised by and become over-reliant on a hardly universally present system where the official in question is wholly dependent on whether the TV crews think that the front row binding will make a good shot.

However, whilst these ideas may help to prevent the scrum collapsing, with regards to the scrum’s place in the modern game they are little more than papering over the cracks. On their own, they will not change the way the game is played and will certainly not magically bring the scrum back to centre stage in the professional game.

For that to happen though, things may have to change quite radically. We must remember that the scrum as an invention is over 150 years old and was made for a game that has since changed beyond all recognition, so it could well be time that it began to reflect that. It’s all well and good playing the running game of today, but if the scrum starts to become little more than a restart then it has lost all its value. However, it is also true that if it is allowed to simply become a complete lottery, then the advantage for the team putting the ball in is lost and everyone just gets frustrated with it.

An answer could be (to pick an example idea) to turn the scrum into a more slippery affair, capable of moving back and forth far more easily than it can at the moment, almost more like a maul than anything else. This would almost certainly require radical changes regarding the structure and engagement of it- perhaps we should say that any number of players (between, say, three and ten) can take part in a scrum, in the same way as happens at lineouts, thereby introducing a tactical element to the setup and meaning that some sneaky trickery and preplanned plays could turn an opposition scrum on its head. Perhaps the laws on how the players are allowed to bind up should be relaxed, forcing teams to choose between a more powerful pushing setup and a looser one allowing for faster attacking & defending responses. Perhaps a law should be trialled demanding that if two teams engaged correctly, but the scrum collapsed because one side went lower than the other then the free kick would be awarded to the ‘lower’ side, thus placing a greater onus on technique over sheer power and turning the balance of the scrum on its head. Would any of these work? Maybe not, but they’re ideas.

I, obviously, do not have all the definitive answers, and I couldn’t say I’m a definite advocate of any of the ideas I voiced above (especially the last one, now I think how ridiculously impractical it would be to manage). But it is at least worth thinking about how much the game has evolved since the scrum’s invention, and whether it’s time for it to catch up.