NEWPORT GWENT DRAGONS chief executive Gareth Davies has warned the Welsh regions could join England’s Premiership next season.
Regional Rugby Wales, the umbrella group for the country’s four professional club sides, is in a lengthy dispute with the Welsh Rugby Union over the shape of future tournaments, revenue distribution and how to stop an increasing talent drain of top players to leading teams in France and England.
The regions are keen to join the proposed Rugby Champions Cup, an alternative to the current European Cup put forward by Premiership clubs, which they say could see each of the four sides earn an extra £1 million each a season.
However, the WRU has been staunch in insisting its teams must continue to play in existing European tournaments and the Celtic League, which acts as a ‘domestic’ competition for leading clubs in Scotland, Ireland, Wales and Italy.
Davies, asked Sunday if joining the Premiership was an option, told BBC Wales’ Scrum V programme: “It is an option. Our understanding with the English clubs, it is quite solid whilst not underestimating the enormous hurdles that are in the way of that happening.”
Former Wales outside-half Davies added: “What are our options? The European Cup will be an extended Pro 12 in effect and I cannot see the tills ringing to see us play Zebre for the fourth time in a season.
The Pro 12 does not have a sponsor and the Italians claimed this week they are pulling out. What options do we have? We need to look at this new European competition and commit ourselves to the domestic league.”
But, unless the clubs wanted to cut ties with all existing rugby authorities, and so run the risk of their players being barred from Test matches, a new Anglo-Welsh tournament would need the approval of the WRU, England’s Rugby Football Union and the International Rugby Board.
Indications are such backing is unlikely to be forthcoming at the present time. Talks between the WRU and RRW over an extension to the ‘participation agreement’ which regulates the Welsh club game broke down in December. That led the regions to propose a new deadline of 31 January amid suggestions the WRU was prepared to scrap the existing structure and form new clubs to compete in competitions it approved.
Playing Zebre four times a year? Connacht would be lost without it. INPHO/James Crombie
However, WRU chief executive Roger Lewis said: “I have not had any private conversations about setting up new regions. I am committed to making the four regions work. The real question is, where will the regions walk to? The RFU have told us they will not let the Welsh regions join the Premiership.”
As for the ‘talent drain’, the WRU have said they are prepared to offer up to six central contracts to prevent more players following the example of Jamie Roberts, Mike Phillips, Dan Lydiate and George North, all of whom are now playing club rugby in either France or England. It has been reported that Wales captain Sam Warburton is close to accepting such a contract. “We need to bring back to Wales the top talent that’s left,” Lewis said.
However, Davies responded by saying: “The issue of central contracts is important, it’s important we retain our best players by whichever means, but the fundamental principles of the agreement between RRW and the WRU have to be established.
“If we don’t have meaningful competitions we will be throwing money away. We must have proper competitions that can give the regions and Welsh rugby some sort of sustainability”