Central contracts and all that…

What a palaver Welsh rugby seems to be in at the moment. The most promising start to a Six Nations since 2008, arguably the most successful World Cup effort ever, while the national team can pull a crowd of 13,000 just to see them go through a light contact training session – things have never been better eh? Not if you have anything to do with a Welsh region it would seem. We’ve mulled over the problems of nobody watching Welsh club rugby anymore, though the recent return of the Cardiff Blues to their homeland has seen the sorts of crowds you expect to see when rugby is played where it is supposed to be played…but let’s not get into club v regions again, everyone is a little tired of that these days.

No, now the problem is players, and holding on to them. It seems that in the space of a season, Wales is suddenly home to the most attractive rugby playing commodities in Europe, and everyone, well, the French and English at least, want a piece of the pie. Gethin Jenkins is off to France, we understand in a reaction to Cardiff head honcho Peter Thomas announcing players would no longer be paid while on international duty – something which must on some levels be very hard to argue with. So central contracts come up once again.

It’s an idea that comes around every season or so, whispered in quiet corners where the WRU can’t hear, except now it seems that the majority in Welsh rugby are screaming about central contracts, directly in to the faces of the Welsh Rugby Union.  Given the salary caps and budgetary problems faced by all the Welsh regions, seeing your most heavily paid assets disappear for half the year can’t be easy – akin to allowing your left arm to go on holiday for 2 out of every 5 working weekdays – it would at the very least inconvenience you. So central contracts offer a certain fairness and sensibility to the proceedings, and after all, the WRU these days is not the lumbering debt ridden beast of old, it is a financial machine, geared towards profitability and turn over, surely they have a penny or two set aside to cover such an initiative?

However, the problem facing the concept is there is nothing to say that it would in any way improve the current situation. The majority of Welsh stars turn out for Welsh regions anyway, yet the crowds don’t come, and the results in Europe are rare. Though many might cry ‘but what of the national team’? Well, it was widely accepted that Stephen Jones was reinvented as a player having spent time in France, while both James Hook and Mike Phillips seem to be undergoing somewhat of a renaissance in their southern surroundings. When central contracts come up, I am often left wondering why it is a bad thing to let the French and English cover the costs of enhancing Welsh players – after all, the French are not looking to block Welsh talent, if they are investing in it, then they will look to make the most of the product.

On top of that, how many players can Welsh rugby sustain anyway? If we take the Scarlets for instance, here is a club that has invested heavily in local youth development, and has produced a raw team littered with international potential. They might not be able to hold onto every single player, but is it necessary? When Dwayne Peel left many lamented his loss to the Welsh game – but did Welsh rugby really miss him after all? If the entire first XV of the Welsh national team were to play abroad, would the system collapse? No is the simple answer. Would training for the national team be harder, potentially, but one would hope that those travelling overseas would still look to prioritise Wales, yet if they are not so inclined, then why would we consider them for the Welsh team in the first place?  Like the regional system or not, it is hard, when looking at the current Welsh squad, to suggest that it is not working, the players coming out of it are very good for something that is in theory broken – if some go to France, there are others waiting for their chance.

This is of course not to say that the idea of central contracts is a bad one, and in theory, keeping all of the Welsh international team at home should be a good thing for the nation, regions and clubs. That being said, what evidence that we do have does not suggest that when we do have all these assets at home, that the positives necessarily occur, and likewise, for those examples of players going overseas, it has not always been the great evil some fear it to be.

One way for the regions to go would be to invest in the local talent, and invest in the local fans. Get this right, and the player resources and finances to sustain it will be there for the future, get those things wrong and however many central contracts are thrown around, will do nothing for the future of the game or the survival of Welsh rugby, be it at club, regional or international level.

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