independent

Saturday 19 April 2014

England's selfie distorts picture for the game in Wales

WRU struggling to maintain control as player exodus continues, says Eddie Butler

Welsh Coach Warren Gatland

The groan has been heart-felt. The Heineken Cup – or whatever the name may be on what is handed over in a mood slightly glummer than euphoric to the winners of next season's European competition – has had a good kicking. It is in the tradition of rugby union to mistreat a pot but the withdrawal of the English clubs may prove a dint beyond repair.

They have boycotted Europe before, but this declaration of non-participation has an edge to it, the frustration of political powerlessness fortified by the muscle of the English clubs' BT Sport deal.

England have done a selfie – a self-exclusion – but instead of being jeered out of the door, as they were on previous occasions, there is a feeling among some of those that must stay behind that they, too, would rather be heading for the exit.

The French clubs, co-founders of the Rugby Champions Cup and defiant allies of the English until they ran into the laws of their land – a slight oversight, their learned friends might have warned them about – will presumably be less than whole-hearted in the establishment's tournament that cages them. And the Welsh regions will be struggling to fill their squads with anyone other than children too young to vote and men too old for the Home Guard.

Wales has been teetering for some time, anxious to know what lay ahead before offering its best players new contracts. Now it seems that as long as these Six Nations champions, these proud Lions, can insert a clause into their contracts, by which they are given leave to play in all Wales's Tests – including the tricky out-of-window fourth of the autumn series – then they can go to pastures new with the blessing of Warren Gatland.

Their fourth Test – last Saturday's very fine encounter with Australia – is one reason why the Welsh regions cannot win the Heineken Cup. From four international matches on consecutive weekends, the players must gather their regional wits and prepare for the all-defining back-to-back showdowns of rounds three and four. Overall it is six weekends, a bloc of contradiction, a clash of interests at a time when maximum togetherness is demanded.

It seems the sense of a shared journey, a common cause, has been lost.

No sooner had the English clubs dug their heels in and confirmed their exit from the Heineken Cup than the Welsh regions announced the departure of Richard Hibbard to Gloucester and Rhys Priestland to Wasps. They also let it be known that they would prefer to join the breakaway English clubs than stay in a competition endorsed only by their governing body, the Welsh Rugby Union.

There is another contradiction here: that the Welsh regions sacrifice their players to English clubs now, and yet wish in the near future to play against them in a new league. It would appear that the priority is to stand up to the WRU, to the point of being prepared to go to court on the matter of restraint of trade.

This, like England's self-exile, has been a long time coming. It is all about control – as in who controls the professional game in Wales. The WRU seems prepared to withhold the funds that might allow the regions to remain competitive.

That is, it is prepared to underfund the four businesses it created – the Blues, Dragons, Ospreys and Scarlets – and see them off, either into exile or oblivion, in order to start again. And to have absolute control over what emerges.

At least there is no contradiction there. But whether Wales can survive schism is another matter. There is not enough money in the land to run one professional branch, let alone two. The only genuine hope remains that somehow out of the chaos present and future, the national team rises, as it has done ever since, out of nowhere, Wales won a Six Nations grand slam in 2005.

Apply logic to rugby in Wales and you are soon requiring sedation. Have faith in an irrationally healthy supply of talented players – and that you don't need too many of them per annum to keep a good team going – and the future does not look so bleak. Perhaps we overvalue the notion of control in Wales.

For the time being the Heineken Cup continues down its 19th course.

Qualification grinds away at English patience, distribution of income gnaws at French tolerance, but the Heineken Cup still enthrals when it comes to town. We hoped upon hope that the contradiction between how the English clubs looked at the Heineken Cup and how they played in it remained one of rugby's rich mysteries. Now we must groan at its passing.

If it is clarity you are after, here is something free of contradiction.

It will not be a Welsh region euphorically receiving the last Heineken Cup in May.

Observer

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