By Rich Jones
WELSH rugby was dealt a blow last week with the news Liam Williams is set to leave Scarlets for Saracens at the end of the season.
The popular full-back reportedly turned down a significant national dual contract offer in order to put pen to paper with the English Premiership club.
The loss of Williams represents the exit of one of Welsh rugby’s prize assets and comes as a big setback to regional rugby.
The news brings the issue of the WRU dual contracts back into the spotlight.
Just over two years have passed since the measure was introduced as part of plans to eventually select players only based in Wales.
The fact a number of stars, now including Williams, are playing outside of Wales suggests this is a long way off and the scheme may not be working.
However, there are now 16 players with dual contracts. Sam Warburton, Hallam Amos, Dan Lydiate and Samson Lee recently signed extensions, and there are plenty of positives.
With some of Wales’ brightest young stars signed up to the scheme, it appears there is a chance the WRU will be able to successfully keep their best players moving forwards.
On the other hand, Williams’ decision to move to Saracens suggests that it may continue to be difficult to persuade top level talent to stay in Wales, particularly given all four regions are showing few signs of challenging for major trophies.
The loss of Williams to Welsh regional rugby is undoubtedly a blow, and does serve as a reminder that the dual contract system is unlikely to ever be entirely successful.
It remains a fact that the highest level of club rugby is played in France and England, and with bigger financial clout on offer in those countries the best players will always be attracted to clubs in those countries.
However, Williams’ departure does not necessarily mean that the scheme is failing. In previous years, many more Welsh players would be playing outside the country and the regions would not be able to compete financially.
It is believed that the WRU largely matched the Saracens in a financial sense, but the opportunity to play at a higher level and also be located nearer to his girlfriend in London swayed Williams’ decision.
This is currently an isolated case and it would be naïve to suggest the WRU dual contracts have not had a positive influence on the future outlook of Welsh rugby.
In terms of the national team, there are some problems created by Williams’ move across the border.
After being one of their top players in recent years, he is almost certain to be given one of four wildcards put aside for players plying their trade outside of Wales.
But that means another key player will be in line to miss out, with George North, Rhys Priestland, Jamie Robert and Taulupe Faletau already playing in the Premiership.
If Leigh Halfpenny also opts to stay in France or move to England instead of returning to Wales then there could be a selection headache for bosses.
Furthermore, there can be issues over the release of players for training and matches, as showcased by the brief stand-off between the WRU and Premiership prior to the Australia game last month.
In some ways, the switch may be a positive for the national side by bringing out the best in Williams. He will be playing top-level club rugby on a weekly basis, something the Welsh regions are unfortunately unable to offer at present given the weaknesses of the Pro12 and their lack of impact in European competitions.
If Williams, who is undoubtedly one of Wales’ most talismanic players, is at his best then it will give a huge impetus to their attacking play moving forwards.