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.

Where do we come from?

In the sport of rugby at the moment (don’t worry, I won’t stay on this topic for too long I promise), there is rather a large debate going on- one that has been echoing around the game for at least a decade now, but that seems to be coming ever closer to the fore. This is the issue of player nationality, namely the modern trend for foreign players to start playing for sides other than those of their birth. The IRB’s rules currently state that one is eligible to play for a country having either lived there for the past three years or if you, either of your parents or any of your grandparents were born there (and so long as you haven’t played for another international side). This state of affairs that has allowed a myriad of foreigners, mainly South Africans (Mouritz Botha, Matt Stevens, Brad Barritt) and New Zealanders (Dylan Hartley, Thomas Waldrom, Riki Flutey), as well as a player all of whose family have played for Samoa (Manu Tuilagi), to play for England in recent years. In fact, Scotland recently played host to an almost comic state of affairs as both the SRU and the media counted down the days until electric Dutch wing Tim Visser, long hailed as the solution to the Scots’ try scoring problems, was eligible to play for Scotland on residency grounds.

These rules were put in place after the ‘Grannygate’ scandal during the early noughties. Kiwi coach Graham Henry, hailed as ‘The Great Redeemer’ by Welsh fans after turning their national side around and leading them to eleven successive victories, had ‘found’ a couple of New Zealanders (Shane Howarth and Brett Sinkinson) with Welsh grandparents to help bolster his side. However, it wasn’t long before a bit of investigative journalism found out that there was no Welsh connection whatsoever, and the whole thing had been a fabrication by Henry and his team. Both players were stopped playing for Wales, and amidst the furore the IRB brought in their new rules.  Sinkinson later qualified on residency and won six further caps for the Welsh. Howarth, having previously played for New Zealand, never played international rugby again.

It might seem odd, then, that this issue is still considered a scandal, despite the IRB having supposedly ‘sorted it out’. But it remains a hugely contentious issue, dividing those who think that Mouritz Botha’s thick South African accent should not be allowed in a white shirt and those who point out that he apparently considers himself English and has as much a right as anyone to compete for the shirt. This is not just an issue in rugby either- during the Olympics, there was a decent amount of criticism for the presence of ‘plastic Brits’ in the Great Britain squad (many of them sporting strong American accents), something that has been present since the days of hastily anglicised South African Zola Budd. In some ways athletics is even more dodgy, as athletes are permitted to change the country they represent (take Bernard Lagat, who originally represented his native Kenya before switching to the USA).

The problem is that nationality is not a simple black & white dividing line, especially in today’s multicultural, well-travelled world. Many people across the globe now hold a dual nationality and a pair of legal passports, and it would be churlish to suggest that they ‘belong’ any more to one country than another. Take Mo Farah, for example, one of Britain’s heroes after the games, and a British citizen- despite being born in, and having all his family come from, Somaliland (technically speaking this is an independent, semi-autonomous state, but is internationally only recognised as part of Somalia). And just as we Britons exalt the performance of ‘our man’, in his home country the locals are equally ecstatic about the performance of a man they consider Somali, whatever country’s colours he runs in.

The thing is, Mo Farah, to the British public at least, seems British. We are all used to our modern, multicultural society, especially in London, so his ethnic origin barely registers as ‘foreign’ any more, and he has developed a strong English accent since he first moved here aged 9. On the other hand, both of Shana Cox’s parents were born in Britain, but was raised in Long Island and has a notable American accent, leading many to dub her a ‘plastic Brit’ after she lead off the 4 x 400m women’s relay team for Great Britain. In fact, you would be surprised how important accent is to our perception of someone’s nationality, as it is the most obvious indicator of where a person’s development as a speaker and a person occurred.

A simultaneously both interesting and quite sad demonstration of this involves a pair of Scottish rappers I saw in the paper a few years ago (and whose names I have forgotten). When they first auditioned as rappers, they did so in their normal Scots accents- and were soundly laughed out of the water. Seriously, their interviewers could barely keep a straight face as they rejected them out of hand purely based on the sound of their voice. Their solution? To adopt American accents, not just for their music but for their entire life. They rapped in American, spoke in American, swore, drank, partied & had sex all in these fake accents. People they met often used to be amazed by the perfect Scottish accents these all-american music stars were able to impersonate. And it worked, allowing them to break onto the music scene and pursue their dreams as musicians, although it exacted quite a cost. At home in Scotland, one of them asked someone at the train station about the timetable. Initially unable to understand the slight hint of distaste he could hear in their homely Scots lilt, it was about a minute before he realised he had asked the question entirely in his fake accent.

(Interestingly, Scottish music stars The Proclaimers, who the rappers were unfavourably compared to in their initial interview, were once asked about the use of their home accents in their music as opposed to the more traditional American of the music industry, and were so annoyed at the assumption that they ‘should’ be singing in an accent that wasn’t theirs that they even made a song (‘Flatten all the Vowels’) about the incident.)

This story highlights perhaps the key issue when considering the debate of nationality- that what we perceive as where someone’s from will often not tell us the whole story. It is not as simple as ‘oh so-and-so is clearly an American, why are they running for Britain?’, because what someone ‘clearly is’ and what they actually are can often be very different. At the very first football international, England v Scotland, most of the Scottish team were selected on the basis of having Scottish-sounding names. We can’t just be judging people on what first meets the eye.