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Welsh rugby season in review: Pile those disappointments high

By South Wales Evening Post  |  Posted: May 13, 2014

Jordan Williams of the Scarlets has been one of few bright spots on the Wales rugby horizon this season.

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THERE have, of course, been worse times — the Ice Age couldn't have been much fun, for example, and it couldn't have been a barrel of laughs around the time of the Great Plague.

But if you're interested in regional or club rugby then it's probably fair to say the past 12 months has been as bad as it gets.

Pile those disappointments one on top of the other: no Welsh side in the Pro12 play-offs, no region in the Heineken Cup quarter-finals, departing Lions, little spare cash, modest crowds, arguments with the Welsh Rugby Union, paralysing uncertainty over the future, cyberspace squeals of protest from the supposedly disenfranchised about the regional settlement.

An optimist might pipe up: "Well, at least the paralysing uncertainty over the future has been removed."

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To a point. European rugby might have belatedly sorted itself out and the Pro12 might look a shade more appealing with the qualification process for the new European cup tightened up.

But the chances of Andrew Hore and Roger Lewis exchanging Best Friends Forever bracelets look as remote as ever, with the union and the regions still to reach agreement for a new accord for Welsh professional rugby.

Under the circumstances, the core of supporters who have kept the faith with the regions over the past ten months deserve medals, because it is hard to recall a season being played out in a more toxic atmosphere.

Some of those fans have grown exasperated, mind.

An email that landed in this writer's inbox minutes after the Ospreys had crashed to defeat in Zebre the other week underlined just how much loyalty and patience were being tested.

"For the last 80 minutes I've been giving myself indigestion having tea whilst watching the shambles unfold in Parma as the Ospreys got what they deserved from this season — nothing," it ran.

"Having endured the sadness at St Helen's (when Swansea were relegated from the Premiership), I cannot believe what I've just seen on S4C. Rugby in this part of the world has gone to the dogs. Yet again there was a strange team selection, coupled with even more inexplicable tactics on the field, along with the usual poor execution and routine butchering of try-scoring opportunities.

"Yes, we know there are financial constraints, but why not pick the right players from the pool you've got and use the right tactics in a game? I'm fed up with watching kids play against men, and the almost Scarlets-like headless chickens style of play.

"With the continuing problems with the WRU still unsolved, there is in my opinion every chance that missing out on the play-offs will become an annual event, as the top four places will be occupied on a regular basis by Leinster, Munster, Ulster and now cash-rich Glasgow. How far is it from Gorseinon to Bristol?

"I have been watching live professional sport since 1961 and this lot are without question the most frustrating sports team I've ever supported.

"Yours disgustedly..."

If we add that the email was also peppered with references to campaigns to oust David Moyes and Alan Pardew, it goes without saying that the writer wasn't Steve Tandy's number one fan. A regular correspondent, he is up there with the Ospreys' most committed supporters, though, following the region through thick and thin and living every line-break, tackle and kick at goal. If someone like him is starting to feel worn down, it really is time to worry.

Some have used the example of Atletico Madrid in football to suggest there is no reason why teams without cash to spare should always struggle.

Fair enough. Inspired by coach Diego Simeone, Atletico are having a remarkable season, but other clubs, such as Sevilla, Valencia, Villareal and Deportivo La Coruna, have risen to front-rank status in Spain before now only to slip back because of financial constraints relative to Real Madrid and Barcelona.

The bottom line is that it is next to impossible to build sustainable trophy-winning success on shaky economic foundations in sport.

Are we currently seeing a fair fight in the Pro12? Not by a long chalk.

The Ospreys, for instance, spend around £300,000 a year on overseas players while leading Irish and Scottish sides are believed to shell out in the region of £1 million apiece on imports, giving them strength in depth plus elite quality, even during Test windows.

Welsh internationals are also away from their regions for longer than most of their counterparts in other countries. Throw in the funding disparities and you can see why the email contributor above is starting to tear his hair out.

Over to you, then, Welsh Rugby Union? Undoubtedly, because no model of professional rugby can facilitate serious success for its teams if leading players are departing at the end of each season partly because the wages being offered are seen as uncompetitive.

The governing body can argue they have offered the regions a form of assistance with their proposals for central contracts.

But the pro teams are still deeply concerned about losing control of their main assets — the players — and have pointed out that a report into Welsh rugby's finances by auditors in 2012 suggested the central-contracts option "does not address the structural funding gap" the four are operating under. For sure, the challenge for Welsh rugby is to generate more money, whether through more lucrative TV deals, bigger crowds or improved sponsorship

In the meantime, there is the option of helping the regions by Wales following England's lead and opting not to pick those players — "unless there are exceptional circumstances" — who opt to play outside domestic rugby. That would at least give the regional game more stability.

But there isn't much sign of anything like that on the horizon, and there is the fair point that the regions have to help themselves more as well.

Are they doing enough to market themselves and build bigger supporter bases? Are they making best use of scarce resources? Is every region punching its weight?

And even given the lack of cash was it asking too much for one of the regions to finish above Glasgow, a side who are perennial under-achievers in Europe?

The Scots have secured a home date in the play-offs with the Welsh teams nowhere.

Are they really 38 points better than Cardiff Blues, as the table suggests? It is hard to imagine the cash disparity between the sides justifying that kind of difference in performances over a season. But the table doesn't lie.

The regions are having to give youth a fling and they are unearthing some gems: Dan Baker, Nicky Smith and Sam Lewis at the Ospreys, Samson Lee, Rhodri Williams and Jordan Williams at the Scarlets, Cory Allen, Ellis Jenkins and Owen Williams at the Blues, Tyler Morgan, Jack Dixon and Hallam Amos at the Dragons — serious prospects all.

Fans of the regions can be excited about the emergence of that lot and others.

Just don't expect too many open-top bus parades over the next season or two, that's all.

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