Everyone has an old pair of jeans that they absolutely love. No matter how worn and tattered they become, how much weight you’ve gained, or how old you’ve become, you think that they look amazing. The fact is that while they may look fantastic to you and make you feel good while wearing them, to outside observers, they are just an old pair of jeans needing to either be fixed or replaced.
This pair of jeans is like the current state of Welsh rugby. No matter how hard the Welsh Rugby Unions, fans, and affiliated clubs say they still look good, they are in need of some help. Everyone knows that the WRU doesn’t have a lot of money and is feeling the effects. Last month The Rugby Paper reported that the WRU was looking to disband one of the professional teams, possibly the Ospreys, to save money. At the same time, they have seen a flood of professional players head to France seeking higher wages.
Seeing the potential disbanding of one of their professional teams as well as the exodus of top players to France and other locations has to be troubling for Welsh fans, but that is reality for the time being and in the foreseeable future. Wales certainly produce their fair of talented players. There would be few that argue that Wales has some of the best young talent in the northern hemisphere, but the odds to stacked to heavily against success in the long-term if things stay the status quo. They only have three million people, easily the smallest of the Tier I nations, and a media market largely absorbed into England culture. Put together, it’s just not enough to have four successful professional sides.
Instead of trying to compete with bigger, more deep-pocketed teams, Wales should realize that its resources could be better put to use by allowing its best players to go overseas to gain better experience while developing younger players at home. In essence, Wales should adopt the Netherlands model. Soccer is easily the biggest sport in the Netherlands. Just look at some of the players they have produced in recent times: Ruud van Nistlerooy and Robin van Persie to name a few. Their national team has also had a lot of success (they reached the final of the last World Cup). They have done all this by investing in their youth, playing them at the club level, and then seeing those players head off to bigger clubs to gain a higher level of play.
I’m sure that some fans in the Netherlands wish that their best players stayed at home and that their clubs had more success in Europe, but reality is reality and when you are a small to medium-sized country you just don’t have the resources to match leagues in Germany, Spain, England, or even France. The best chance these individual clubs have at succeeding is growing their own players and selling them off for a profit. Welsh clubs can follow this same example. It’s true that the transfer system in rugby doesn’t work the same way as it does in soccer, but trying to get something from the departure of top players is better than getting nothing. Bringing in fees from transfer could ensure that all four professional clubs involved survive and that they are growing players for the national team.
Allowing top players to head to the Premiership or the Top 14 isn’t the worst thing in the world for Wales either. Frankly, if the Heineken Cup is any indication of the state of Welsh rugby, things look pretty bleak compared to those in France and England. It would be better for the best Welsh players to test themselves week in and week out against better players in other competitions. The WRU may have to adjust some fixtures to make it work, but it’s in their best interests.
In the end Welsh rugby has no other choice but to follow this scaled down model. They don’t have the money to succeed at their current level and if they wait too long it could have far-reaching negative consequences for the long-term future of the game in Wales. Adapt or fail.
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