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.

A case study about… well, definitely something or other

Yesterday, I was sitting behind my PC, scrolling down my Facebook news feed, idly wondering what I should post about here today, when I came across a story that I found quite surprising. Dan Parks, the Scotland fly half who (as the video in Monday’s post showed), conceded Scotland’s losing try at the weekend by having his kick charged down, had retired from international rugby with immediate effect. To many, especially those who either haven’t heard of his past history or who simply hate the guy, this might seem like an overblown knee-jerk reaction to his weekend’s performance. But, to my mind, it is something more than that. (To hear Parks’ statement on the matter, click here: http://www.rugbyworld.com/news/dan-parks-retires-from-international-rugby-with-immediate-effect/) Dan Parks has always been a man who interests me, and, while I must apologise for once again turning to rugby for subject matter, sport is not really what this is about- so for all non-rugby people reading this, please bear with me.
For those who don’t know, Dan Parks is an Australian, qualifying for Scotland through his genealogy (not sure exactly how- rugby’s international qualification system is far from restrictive in such matters however). He has always been a kicking fly-half, as opposed to the faster, more running-centric style adopted by many modern fly-halves, which has led to his decision-making, incisiveness and general suitability for the 10 shirt being called into question on numerous occasions, and he was first capped by Matt Williams, the hideously unpopular (and unsuccessful) Australian coach who Scotland employed for two years after the 2003 World Cup. All these 3 factors have lead to Dan Parks becoming thoroughly hated among the Scottish fans.
Parks is the only international rugby player I have ever heard of being booed by his own fans, and has been regularly slaughtered by press and fans alike. Reading stuff written online about him the evening after a poor performance can be quite startling- after Scotland lost to Argentina in the World Cup last year, in a match when Parks missed a drop-goal that could have won Scotland the match, the anger vented online was something to behold. And that wasn’t even the worst time.
I will admit, there is a lot to dislike about  Parks’ game. For a kicking game to work in modern rugby it requires a stupendously good (and powerful) kicker, an effective forward pack and a game plan built around it, as South Africa demonstrated so ably in the opening months of 2010. Parks is not quite a good enough kicker to pull this off and build a game around, and he under uses his running game, the style of choice for the modern fly-half- he is far from the perfect 10.
But… well let me tell you a story about him. In 2009, a new coach, Andy Robinson, came to the Scotland job, and Parks was left out of the squad. He had been under-performing for Glasgow, and in April was found driving under the influence and was almost thrown out of the Glasgow side. In 2010, he was recalled for Scotland’s match against Wales- and played an absolute blinder. He won Man of the Match, and the 10 jersey for the next 3 games, in which he won an unprecedented 2 more MOTM awards, and with a touchline kick, allowed Scotland to win their match against Ireland, who had won the Grand Slam the year before and who critics had said would steamroller them. He was integral in Scotland’s next two matches, on the summer tour to Argentina, where Scotland won the series 2-0; their first capped series win ever, after 50 years of trying. To cap off a splendid year for Scotland, he scored all 21 points in their biggest scalp of the year- beating South Africa, then ranked 1st or 2nd in the world. He was playing superb rugby. He was on top of the world.
At the start of the 2009/10 season, Dan Parks was at his lowest ebb. He had been dropped by his country, and looked set never to reach the 50-cap milestone. He had been underperforming for his club, and uncapped Ruaridh Jackson was preventing him even getting game time for them. Every critic had written his career off as over, and for many it was a case of ‘good riddance’. By the start of next season, he was transformed- he had made the Celtic League’s dream team for the 09/10 season after putting in some stellar performances, and was back in the good books of his country, his coach and, most surprisingly, the media- even his harshest critics acknowledged how well he had been playing, and even the public went back to liking him.
Somehow, Parks had managed to recover his self-confidence, skill and drive when a nation was against him. He turned haters into admirers, enemies into friends, and got his life and career back on track. Parks has, over the course of his career, faced some of the hardest and harshest criticism that any player has had to face- and yet he has come through it, and had a remarkably successful career. Not only has he gone on to win 67 caps, but he holds the Scottish record for most international drop-goals (15), and the points and appearances records for Glasgow. And, for that, I respect him. I respect the way he has fought tooth and nail for his place, and has always managed to cope, despite all the criticism that has been thrown at him for being nothing more or less than the player and person he is. I respect the way he was able to come back from the nadir of his career, and to reach a zenith not long after. I respect what he has done as a player, and how he has never given in to his critics, how he has always just kept his head down and kept on working.
If you watch the video of Charlie Hodgson’s try on Saturday, you will see on the replay a figure in a Scotland shirt turn and, as Hodgson touches it down, put his hands on his knees and lower his head. That figure is Dan Parks. Look at his face carefully, and you will see it fall as Hodgson touches down, crumble with the knowledge that he alone is responsible for England scoring the only try the game ever looked like producing. He knows that in the papers the next day he is going to, once again, be slaughtered. If you ask me, it is that precise moment that Parks decided it was time to throw in the towel, and, to my mind, he if anyone deserves to make his own call on when that date should be. Since there are few enough people saying it, I think I should add my personal thanks to his career- Dan Parks, you have been a great servant to Scotland and to Glasgow, more than many a player, have been a better player than many a competitor or rival, and have been a far better person than many a critic. Thank you for what you have done for Scotland, and I wish you the best.