As Atlantic waves, many bigger even than Luke Charteris, continue to reduce Wales’s sea defences to rubble, further inland the climate seems to be settling with the Welsh Rugby Union adopting a more conciliatory stance towards their refusenik regions.
While the Welsh game is not out of the storm-tossed waters just yet – squalls about their four franchises stropping off to join the English Premiership still circulate – in the last few days the tone of the very public statements and briefings has dropped a couple of notches down the Beaufort Scale.
The WRU is reportedly prepared to open talks about a new partnership agreement with the Cardiff Blues, Dragons, Ospreys and Scarlets, and it’s several days since Regional Rugby Wales, the umbrella organisation, issued a hysterical press release calling anyone at the union anything particularly unpleasant. That’s progress.
Indeed Wasps Welsh DOR Dai Young’s reading of the runes is that once the wind drops, common sense will prevail: “ I would like to think they will all pull together and do the right thing for Wales, because I’m sure they will at some stage. The politicians and the power brokers will do what they think is right. And there’s enough people down there, enough quality people in Wales, to pull together to get it right.”
So why do we care in England? Well, admittedly few of us will be as concerned as Mark McCafferty the chief executive of Premier Rugby Ltd, which represents the clubs and runs the English top flight, who faces being jilted a second time.
Having gone public with their very reasonable issues with qualification for and revenues from the Heineken Cup and come up with a new competition involving the French clubs, PRL were left with oeuf on their face when their cross-Channel co-conspirators did an about turn and recommitted to the H Cup.
No matter, PRL was able to flutter its eyelashes at RRW, whose dispute with the WRU was becoming increasingly vitriolic. The RRW has all sorts of grumbles, primarily about funding but also about the right to negotiate which competitions they play in and the idea of an Anglo-Welsh league was tossed up the beach.
Leave aside for a moment the fact that the cross-border tournament is hardly the pan-European extravaganza most people in the northern hemisphere actually want, whether they publicly admit it or not, and focus instead on the growing likelihood PRL could have missed out on another bedfellow.
As Oscar Wilde nearly put it: “To lose one partner, Mr McCafferty, may be regarded as a misfortune. To lose both looks like carelessness.”
And if that does come to pass Premier Rugby will be left looking around again for matches to replace the Heineken Cup. Just the eight weekends to fill, then. What about an Anglo-Georgian competition? Tblisi can be lovely in the autumn. Perhaps once they have explored every other possibility their gaze might alight upon their Championship cousins who, in the middle of a crisis, might not seem so ugly after all. Expanding the Premiership to 14 or 16 – not with Welsh regions and all the legal baggage that would bring, is the right thing to do.
No-one is claiming a London Irish-Leeds match is an adequate replacement for fixtures involving Toulouse or Clermont Auvergne – those magnificent occasions must be the goal PRL find a way to bring about. Clashes between England’s finest and their counterparts in Ireland and France are Titanic battles that serve the paying public and developing players well.
But while all the variables are up in the air, instead of erecting some ill-conceived halfway house that does so much damage to the sport in Wales and radically affects the English pyramid, why not open the PRL doors to clubs like Bristol, Leeds, Cornish Pirates, Rotherham and Bedford among others.
Bristol and Leeds already distort the Championship playing field by benefitting from RFU funded academies, a third, Worcester, will arrive next season, meaning possibly a quarter of the league will have institutionally-underwritten access to their rivals’ best young players. It’s not right but such clubs already have the infrastructure akin to others in the Premiership.
Bristol, who are still PRL stakeholders, attracted a 7,000-strong crowd to their Christmas match and although the move to Ashton Gate does not send out a great message of permanence, neither does the uncertainty surrounding Wasps’ and Irish’s tenure. With a wealthy and ambitious backer there should be some way to turn one of the most famous names in the sport into a blue-chip Premiership entity.
Geographically Leeds must also be allowed to become an important outpost of the union code. With only Sale and Newcastle operating in the north, at least a third location has to be desirable if the game is not to become even more London-centric. The progress of London Scottish and Ealing, commendable and exciting as it is, has made the sport even more lop-sided.
The Pirates of Cornwall occupy the other obvious untapped market and it is a credit to Dickie Evans and anyone associated with the club that they continue to bash their heads against the local government brick wall which separates them from what could be a thrilling future. They would be a credit to an expanded league.
How do you put them there? That’s a contentious one. Results must always be the main arbiter of progress and all three could help themselves massively with a top four finish – just in case a rather worried Mr McCafferty calls.