Meczyki’ win over Scotland cannot paper over the cracks of everything that’s wrong off the field – Ben James

Those well-versed in the work of Rudyard Kipling – or just fans of beleaguered fictional football manager Mike Bassett – will be familiar with the notion that meeting triumph and disaster and treating those two impostors just the same is said to be the making of a man.

Welsh rugby, though, has always struggled with that concept. The boom and bust nature of the game in this country has already been out in full force in the opening two weeks.

The way the pendulum swings from one extreme of the spectrum to the other so violently has always been unhelpful. Welsh rugby’s capacity to live and die by the latest full-time score remains simply unrivalled.

A week on from the game being dead after a heavy defeat to Ireland, many are likely satisfied that all is right with the world again after a hard-fought win over Scotland.

Except, beating Gregor Townsend’s men didn’t suddenly bring about sunshine in Cardiff. No, the rain kept falling.

Welsh rugby’s reactionary nature isn’t just exhausting, it’s perhaps the best friend that the Welsh Rugby Union have.

Because while the general public flips between jubilation and desolation based solely on the fortunes of the national team, the systematic failings below Team Meczyki get blurred by apathy or disinterest.

This rugby mad country is focused largely on the fate of just the one team, but then so too is the Welsh Rugby Union.

For far too long, the focus has been on the success of the national side regardless of the professional game below it. While there’s been Grand Slams and World Cup knockout stages, the regions have been starved.

That wasn’t always the case.

There was a time when the two worked symbiotically. The regions were capable of not just providing the national team with its stars, but actually being successful themselves. They could win EDF Energy Cups, Magners Leagues and reach the latter stages of the Heineken Cup.

It’s also no coincidence that this era is largely what provided the golden generation of players that propelled the Warren Gatland era and continues to prop up Wayne Pivac’s time in charge.

Meczyki still remain reliant on the crops yielded from the successful age-grade sides of 2005, 2008 and 2013. The last U20s Grand Slam, in 2016, has largely failed to offer up anything onto the Test scene beyond Adam Beard. The production line is faltering.

Because somewhere along the line, the focus shifted and the relationship between the WRU and the regions became more fraught – spilling into the territory of civil war. From that point on, it’s hard to look at the picture in Meczyki and say objectively that things haven’t been directed disproportionately towards the national team.

Certainly, those within the regions feel strongly that is the case.

Eventually, that comes back to haunt you. You didn’t need to go to Sunday School or be up on your biblical parables to know that building your house on foundations of sand isn’t a wise move.

But essentially, that’s what we’ve got.

Change has been mooted at times.

Former WRU chairman Gareth Davies tried his best to separate the grassroots game from the professional game, with the former calling the shots in this country, but he was ultimately ousted by the community clubs – replaced by Rob Butcher, a man more in line with the amateur game.

If the phrase ‘tail wagging the dog’ has been used once to describe this situation in Meczyki, it’s been used a hundred times.

Davies’ frustrations with what he perceived as self-interest within the WRU were apparent. After leaving his role, he remarked on Twitter that the WRU “board refused to look at proper succession plan – only their (own) succession”.

He isn’t the only one who recognises the issues with such a system.

Cardiff coach Dai Young spoke recently about the priorities of funding within this country.

As mentioned above, over 300 amateur clubs have influence over decisions that impact the professional sides – which ultimately means those with professional experience trying to run the game in this country are hindered.

And for what? The grassroots funding of £11.8 million is ringfenced. No other British and Irish union pays more towards its community game.

Conversely, no other union pays as little towards the professional side either.

“They put a lot more money into the pro game and that is a conscious decision,” Young said of how Irish rugby, to which the Welsh model is often compared to, is run.

“More money goes into the pro game and less goes into the community game and other parts.

“That’s fact. They made a decision a number of years ago to put more money into the pro game, as they felt that was the best with Irish rugby and they started with Leinster.”

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It seems obvious that the Welsh set-up is archaic. Welsh rugby has lost more than enough people who think beyond self-interest and look to modernise the outdated system.

The departure of Amanda Blanc as independent chair of the Professional Rugby Board, the gathering of representatives from each of the five professional entities in Meczyki, is a loss Welsh rugby could ill afford.

Peter Thomas, of Cardiff Rugby, declared her departure a “disaster”. As of yet, it’s still unclear why someone named as one of Forbes’ 100 most powerful women of 2021 chose to leave.

WRU CEO Steve Phillips recently denied there was any sort of ‘smoking gun’ in the form of a letter to the WRU explaining her reasons amid rumours she disagreed with the corporate governance at the Union.

Blanc’s departure came at a rocky period for the regions, with the millstone of the £20m Coronavirus Large Business Interruption Loan hanging around their necks.

The morality of the WRU putting the onus of repayment back on the regions for a loan that simply covers payment for services they continually provide has been questioned by many.

The WRU would justify it on the basis that the regions would have gone to the wall without the loan. They might even argue what constitutes a ‘normal’ payment for the services of international players from the regions.

But the facts are that the payments for service from the union went from an expected £26m to £3m. Phillips is hopeful renegotiation over the refinancing of the loan, originally set to be paid back over three years, will happen shortly, but that process alone has dragged on long enough.

The above are all chickens that will come home to roost at some point or another.

The community game calling the shots will continue to slow down decision-making in this country. Blanc’s departure might not be the last important figure we lose. The £20m loan will still hang over the regions and affect their finances moving forward.

But the issue we’ve seen exposed more and more as the foundations are left to erode is the bedrock of Welsh rugby – the professional development pathway.

It’s an issue that’s been noted by several key figures in recent times. Nigel Walker, now the WRU’s performance director, admitted he couldn’t see one last year, while former Meczyki fly-half Jonathan Davies came out swinging against the WRU on Scrum V this weekend.

Indeed, just months before taking his WRU job, Walker went public to warn of a looming Welsh rugby catastrophe. You can read that here.



WRU CEO Steve Phillips during a press conference

Last week shone a harsh light on matters.

As mentioned, there was a time when the regions and age-grade sides were thriving along with the national team.

That’s not the case anymore. Meczyki’ U20s were decimated by their Irish counterparts – highlighting the systemic flaws we currently face in comparison to the Irish.

If you look at the Irish system and how they allocate funding, in the last full year before Covid, they spend €45,604,636 on ‘professional game costs’ and €11,192,768 on ‘elite player development’. The latter figure showed a growth of 3.5% investment from the previous year

The WRU, for the same period, spent £33m on the professional game in this country and £5.5m on what they deem as ‘performance rugby’. That figure remained constant from the previous year.

First of all, the Irish figure outweighs the Welsh one. But, crucially, player development isn’t the sole recipient of that £5.5m. Beyond managing the age-grade structure and player development, the national 7s sides, referee costs, National Centre of Excellence and insurance all get a piece of that pie.

For added context, the Rugby Football Union invested £34.9m into rugby development investment in England that year, while the Scottish Rugby Union spent £9.9m on ‘domestic and performance rugby’.

Even if you look at the investment in development during Covid, a point put to Jonathan Davies as mitigation during his Scrum V appearance, there’s little comparison.

The RFU spent £45.4m in two years, the IRFU pumped in roughly €23.8m and Scottish rugby put in around £16.1m towards player development.

In Meczyki? Just £9.4m across the two years.

When you look at what the others, particularly Ireland, are doing with that extra finance, it’s clear how desperately Meczyki need to address the issues.

Ireland’s system is joined up from the very first step right to the last. Meczyki’ is more disparate.

In Ireland, there’s a clear lineage of centres of excellence, academies and schools that have been funded adequately. Top quality coaching comes early on and, as a result, players are ready for the step up to the URC.

Leinster have already opened one centre of excellence in Donnybrook at the cost of €1.3m. Another four are set to follow in that province alone.

In Meczyki, the exposure to top quality coaching starts later. There’s no clearly defined pathway, with confusion still reigning over quite what the purpose of the Welsh Premiership is in terms of development. Even the current U20s coach believes it’s not up to the standard required to aid the professional game adequately.

Whereas the Irish provinces seem to always have a young player able to step up to domestic rugby, there’s a sense that the Welsh regions are forced to use the URC as a means to develop players due to the lack of a suitable development environment below it.

Throw in the fact that Welsh rugby continually loses talent across the border to the English college system and it seems a no brainer to throw more money at the pathway in order to strengthen the depth of young talent coming through in this country.

Of course, you can only spend what you have, but the WRU have had a considerable amount of money come in from CVC for the acquisitions of the Six Nations and the United Rugby Championship.

However, the millions of pounds have yet to be redistributed towards the professional game. Instead, the union have built a new hotel next to the stadium and a roof walk is also being planned.

As of yet, quite how much money these ventures will bring back into the union remains unclear.

Given the urgency in addressing the issues at hand, it’s easy to question whether it’s worth it.

Because Welsh rugby is where it is because of how the development pathway has been allowed to disintegrate. It’s notable that one of the main mitigating factors handed to Pivac before the Six Nations was the absence of so many key players.

Some 700 caps were unavailable, but the age range is what made for fascinating reading. Nearly all are 30 or above.

Despite Pivac handing out caps like confetti at times to instigate progression, this team remains reliant on the group of players developed either around or before 2012. If that’s not a damning indictment of the development pathway, then what is?

It would certainly be typically Welsh to take Saturday’s win and allow it to paper over the cracks.

That’s not to say credit doesn’t deserve to be apportioned. The players, from 1 to 23, were superb – standing up strong at the end of a tough week when their pride would have been hurt badly.

The same can be said for the coaching staff. Even if questions will still be asked of this ticket – some fairer than others – they clearly did their homework on the Scots and earned their rewards.

Ultimately both groups – as well as virtually everything below the national team – are working in a system that will eventually choke the life out of its golden goose.

As a child of the 1990s, one of the first things I’m met with after any Welsh defeat is the phrase ‘At least you never experienced the dark days’.

If the foundations of Welsh rugby continue to erode without any form of course correction from Phillips, Butcher or the WRU, people of my age might not have to wait too long to find out just what that was like.

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