Here comes some harsh home truths. The Pro12 is not in the strongest place it has ever been in European Rugby- actually, it is in a straight-up weak position..
Across Wales, Ireland, Scotland and Italy, just one club featured in last season’s European Champions Cup quarter-finals, and whilst Leinster were perhaps unfortunate to be on the wrong side of a semi-final defeat to Toulon, the latter stages of this elite competition have an increasingly disturbing Anglo-French look to them. Whilst the picture is slightly less frightening in the European Challenge Cup, with the Pro12 providing four of the final eight teams, there still remains a disctinct lack of consistent representation by Welsh regions. This is hardly a new phenomenon though, and barring Cardiff Blues’ 2010-11 Heineken Cup Final appearance and their Challenge Cup win in 2010, no Welsh region has ever featured in a European Cup final of any sort. So why do the regions struggle in Europe so much?
The strength of the regions has been considerably reduced due to a constant wave of infighting within the Welsh game, reaching a point where they can no longer realistically compete with teams from the likes of England, France and Ireland.
It seems like years ago when the Blues were ranked top seeds for the Heineken Cup, back in 2011-12, and even further back when a penalty goal cost them against Leicester 2009. But now, as a second-tier Challenge Cup side, improvement still doesn’t seem forthcoming (especially when you lose to a Harlequins second-string side).
The Ospreys’ time to shine was the halcyon period of 2007 to 2010, where they experienced three quarter-finals, but never made the step-up to a semi-final place. Consequently, both their pride and stock have taken a hammering, finishing last season with a disparaging home loss to Northampton (admittedly, who boast a number of England internationals), followed up by a humiliating defeat to Italian side Treviso (who now have Filo Paulo! See, Blues fans, it’s not so bad, is it?).
Clermont are Ospreys’ competition in Pool Two of the Champions Cup this season, making progression to the quarters an even harder task. Interestingly, it is Scarlets who have perhaps been the best performing Welsh side in this competition over the last few years. However, despite a dominant start to their domestic Pro12 campaign this season, their European performances have failed to live up to expectation, after losing each of their opening two matches- perhaps highlighting the disparagement between the Pro12 and Europe’s other top leagues.
So, where do we go from here? Do equal laws need to be imposed across all European leagues to make for a fairer competition in Europe? Does more money need to be pumped in to domestic rugby in Wales? What is the governing body, European Professional Club Rugby (EPCR), doing in response? To answer these divisive questions, I turned to ReadRugbyUnion’s Ben James, who gave a startling, but brilliant insight on these matters, and more: “As it stands at the moment, it is inconceivable for a Welsh region to challenge in the latter stages of Europe,” he commented.
“It’s been like this for the past five years. Before that, the Blues, Ospreys and Scarlets had all managed to compete against the heavyweights of European rugby. The reason for the sharp decline is the healthy financial status of their rivals compared to their own. Currently the Welsh regions work under a self-imposed £4.5m salary cap and a limit of six non-Welsh players. If you compare that to the French clubs working with an £8.6m cap and no limit on foreign players, it is easy to see why the Welsh regions are struggling. The other home nations sit somewhere in between on the spectrum. Both Scotland and Ireland boast bigger budgets than the Welsh, while the English will be working with a cap of roughly £7m next year – which includes two marquee signings.”
With the Top14’s alleged £8.6m salary cap a lengthy talking point in itself and sides such as Toulon drawing some of the world’s best players in, just how can our regions really compete? It’s more than just the money, the challenge of getting the right structure in place to begin with presents a big enough obstacle as it is. “Recent pieces of astute business by the WRU and PRW has seen more money come the way of the regions and the advent of dual contracts have also ensured a number of stars have stayed in Wales,” James argues.
“The next step could be further enforcing “Gatland’s Law” (drawn up by Warren Gatland to deter star names from heading for England and France, and to keep as many Wales squad players on home soil as possible), as there are still too many loopholes allowing players to have their cake and eat it. At the moment, too many players can move abroad knowing their international future is still fairly safe.” – The names Leigh Halfpenny, Mike Phillips and George North spring to mind.
“However, fixing the shambles that is Gatland’s Law is the tricky part. Enforcing a full-on RFU policy of only players playing in Wales can represent the national team is something to be wary of, as we simply don’t have the strength-in-depth or resources to do that. Instead, I would suggest following something along the lines of the Australian system, where you can only be eligible to move abroad and retain the right to play international rugby if you have a certain number of caps. This way players will spend a good majority of their career in Wales rather than moving abroad if they truly cherish the honour of playing for their country,” James added.
Yet, the pull of France may be too great to resist for some Welsh mainstays, with the likes of Halfpenny and Luke Charteris now plying their trade on the the other side of the Channel (though Charteris has since agreed to join Bath next season, and Halfpenny is attracting interest from UK-based teams, such as Wasps), and before them, Jamie Roberts and Dan Lydiate, while players such as Blues, Wales and Lions skipper, Sam Warburton, remain targets.
Even if Welsh players do stay with their regions, the number of foreign stars at clubs in France will always mean that, for the next few years at least, it seems inevetible that sides such as Toulon, Clermont and even English-cash-rich clubs like Saracens, will have a considerable advantage.
Of course, we cannot conclude that Welsh sides are not worth the time or space in Europe, and the raw quality at Scarlets and Ospreys means they are capable of producing performances that can test nearly anyone in Europe, but the odds will increasingly be stacked against them unless some things change.
You can look at it in the other way though, and whilst France may well boast the big-name foreign stars in its league and their clubs may well be dominating at the top of the European club rugby pyramid, it only serves to the detriment of its national side. Has anyone else noticed how, in five years, the French have gone from Six Nations favourites and Rugby World Cup Finalists to nothing short of a joke on the international stage? Conincidence?
“At some point, French rugby may take a stand and impose something which will balance out rugby in France but, until it does, the likes of Toulon and Clermont will continue to break the bank on the latest disposable foreign star. How long the French clubs go on like this is anyone’s guess. The problem with rugby today is that, unless you have a system like New Zealand’s, which offers complete control of both club and country, sacrifice is necessary to maintain some sort of balance between the domestic and international game.”
‘The Toulon Approach’, as I’m going to call it myself, is a trend that’s growing in the game though and there are now sides like Bath, Wasps and Leicester, from England, that are pumping money in to player recruitment to try and compete at Europe’s top level. The cash-rich clubs looks set to be in contention come the end of this European season and many more beyond, whilst Wales faces the very real threat that none of their regions could progress out of the Champions Cup pool stages.
For now, there seems no light at the end of the tunnel for the Welsh regions and with an even European-cross salary cap and equal overseas-player laws a seemingly unlikely resolution, Wales may have to remain distant from the top of European club rugby.