Rugby to a Welshman….
Rugby to a Welshman or woman is like gaelic games to their Irish counterpart. It is part of the national psyche and runs deep. True, rugby is a well established and thriving sport in this country but many in the Irish rugby family have only a passing interest in gaelic games. But every parish and every community on this island has an umbilical link to its GAA club. When that club thrives, a community gets a bounce.
Most readers won’t be familiar with the village of Fossa in South Kerry, just outside of Killarney. It is on the road to Killorglin and boasts a pub, a church and a school, little else. Of course it also boasts a GAA club. Not a successful GAA club, but one at the heart of the community. The local pub is the main shirt sponsor, and up until recently they never really won anything of note. They play in the lower reaches of the Kerry Championship. This year though, they are All Ireland Junior Football Champions. You know the main reason for this of course, David and Paudie Clifford. But the point of the Fossa story is how the community have reacted to the success. There are red and black flags everywhere, the club colours. When Kerry are competing for Sam Maguire, the parish puts out a fair smattering of green and gold flags. But now that Fossa are winning, the red and black flags are much more populous than the green and gold flags ever were. As a casual observer, it looks as though greater pride is taken in the achievement of Fossa winning in Croke Park for the first time than Kerry winning Sam Maguire for the 38th time.
Which only serves to illustrate just how deep the GAA club is in the hearts and minds of Irish people. Rugby in Wales is almost identical. Many years ago when we first got multi-channel television in Clonmel (does anyone remember Suir-Nore Relays?) I was fascinated at how much time S4C and HTV Wales gave to rugby union. I shouldn’t have been. Watching Bridgend play Neath on a Sunday afternoon was like watching the Munster hurling championship. Huge crowds, lots of passion. A world away from the then hooligan plagued English professional soccer. The game was amateur. Bridgend was the club of former great, JPR Williams. Neath was the club of then current star, Jonathan Davies.
The Welsh rugby club scene back then was similar to, but much bigger than its Irish counterpart. Big Limerick derbies between Garryowen and Shannon might have commanded large crowds to the old Thomond Park, but rugby was never the biggest sport in the land.
And then the game went professional. As a result, the Welsh game finds itself in the mess it is in today. In Ireland, we quickly realised that we could only afford, at most, four professional teams and we had ready made solutions in the form of the four provinces, with a ready made geographical spread. Each with its own history and tradition. Granted, before the professional era, crowds at inter-provincial games were poor. And the reason they were poor was because crowds back then preferred to watch Young Munster and Shannon knock lumps out of each other, rather than watch players from those same clubs compete for the same team. But local rivalries were set aside when touring international sides would visit. 1978 and all that. The tradition was there.
So the IRFU, in its wisdom, funded the four provinces as professional entities, developed centralised contracts for the international players and managed the change to professionalism pretty well. It also got buy in from the paying public. Munster Rugby became a juggernaut, Leinster soon followed and the international side prospered. By and large, Irish rugby is well run, well-funded and dare I say in rude good health.
So why then is Welsh rugby in such turmoil? Well the first thing they faced was how many professional teams could they support. As the game turned professional there were around 18 clubs at the top echelon of Welsh Rugby. The Welsh needed to create four regions and in effect merge clubs. What they tried to do was create hybrid clubs, Neath and Swansea were merged into the Osprey’s, Pontypool, Newport, Ebbw Vale were merged into the Dragons. The public didn’t then, and have not yet, bought into this, even after 20 years. Teenage rugby fans in Wales have only ever known the hybrid clubs but still no buy-in from the public at large. Average crowds at professional Welsh club rugby pales by comparison to their Irish equivalent.
Unlike Munster and Leinster, the Ospreys and the Dragons are not wholly owned by the WRU, they are majority owned by the Welsh Union but are hugely dependent on major benefactor investment. Also, if the Welsh Union runs a deficit, as happened in the COVID years, it can clawback some of this deficit by reducing funding to the four regions. The players already took a 20% pay cut as a result of COVID measures and now the Welsh Union has come back looking for more. Add to that, uncertainty about central contracts, most of the players are out of contract at the end of this year, and the 50 cap rule, you can be sympathetic to recent threats of strike action by the Welsh players. It can be a short career after all.
The 50 cap rule was a crude measure to keep Welsh players playing in Wales. It meant that if you left a Welsh region and moved to say and English or French club – for larger wages- then you could no longer be selected for the national side unless you had 50 caps or more. Only seasoned internationals could contemplate moving abroad for more money, unless you wanted to forego an international career.
The Welsh international team is the main money maker for the Union. The Principality Stadium is usually sold out when the national side play there. Without the national side being successful, the Welsh Union would be bankrupt. In Ireland the IRFU call our provinces ‘branches’, sub divisions of the Irish Rugby Union, all supposedly pulling together. When the inaugural Celtic League kicked off, Munster had average crowds of around 3,000, within 10 years it had grown to over 20,000. Only once in that time has a Welsh regional team had average crowds above 10,000 and that was Cardiff and that was only once and that was over 10 years ago. Unlike in Ireland, the four regions are unloved. The four regions are underfunded and are either at loggerheads with themselves or with the Welsh Union, mostly both and at the same time.
So why an article on the malaise in Welsh Rugby?
I was reading an article by Denis Walsh in last weekend’s Irish Times on how DJ Carey became the GAA’s first superstar. It detailed how open Carey was to avenues that allowed him and other high profile GAA players to monetise their public profile. I don’t really have a problem with players making a few bob from playing high level sport, even if it is an amateur sport. They put in huge sacrifice. Opening a supermarket is fine, no one is naive enough to expect them to do that for nothing. If they travel to present medals at a GAA club then they should get expenses for it, no one should be burning petrol or diesel these days without being recompensed for it. But that is where the line is currently. I’m sure some managers have crossed the line over the years, but we all know where the amateur line is drawn. If you choose to cross it bear in mind the ramifications of same, be mindful of Welsh rugby.
If ever there was an argument to be made for paying GAA players then the experience in Wales provides the counter argument. The heart and soul of clubs like Bridgend and Neath has been lost, in a way that the soul of Garryowen and Shannon hasn’t. The regions of Cardiff, Llanelli and Ospreys have an uncertain future in a way that Ulster, Munster and Leinster don’t. If GAA players could move clubs then Fossa in South Kerry would surely have lost the Clifford brothers by now. I could understand the outcry in Kilkerrin-Clonberne when the player they had nurtured, Shane Walsh, moved to Dublin club Kilmacud. But such transfers are rare enough and when they do happen they invariably involve a player leaving the county club scene altogether, most likely for career reasons and the travel required midweek to get back to a rural club. Shane Walsh still plays football for Galway don’t forget.
So comparisons between Welsh Rugby and Irish Rugby are invalid for one simple reason, rugby isn’t the biggest sport in Ireland and doesn’t demand the national attention that Welsh Rugby does. Welsh rugby and the GAA are kindred spirits. One went professional and made a bags of it. The other would do well to take notes on how to ruin over a century of tradition and realise that you don’t fully know what you’ve got until its gone.