With ever week comes another rumour, story or announcement that a Welsh player is leaving their region for pastures new. Over recent weeks Gethin Jenkins, Aled Brew and Huw Bennett have been tempted to Southern France; lured by lucrative salaries, warm climates and the Mediterranean lifestyle. They follow in the footsteps of Mike Phillips, Lee Byrne, James Hook and Luke Charteris. There is no doubt that there is an exodus of top players leaving Wales. More worryingly there seems little chance of this slowing down and rumours of fellow players jetting off to warmer climes begin almost daily. It is a worrying time for Welsh rugby.
Only a few months have passed since the Welsh regions announced a new salary cap of £3.5 million, a step taken to ensure the financial viability of the regions. Despite this being a positive step in securing the long term future of professional rugby it has raised questions about the ability to retain the best players in Wales. Indeed recent announcements of the departures of Brew, Jenkins and Bennett only highlight further the constant struggle of the regions against the financial clout of the French sides.
The reasons for the exodus seem two fold. Firstly, there is the financial clout of the French sides. Not only can the French sides offer a change in lifestyle, but also a salary that cannot be matched by British sides. With more sponsorship, wealthy benefactors and higher attendances it is no wonder that sides such as Toulon can afford to throw money at players.
The second reason is the financial strain on all of the Welsh regions at present. Rugby is not a profitably business in Wales and since professionalization clubs, and subsequently regions, have relied on benefactors to bankroll the team. It is only now that the regions are realizing that this is not a suitable model and costs are being cut. With the coming of the salary cap in Wales also comes cuts in the playing staff. International players such as Sean Lamont, Tommy Bowe, Dan Parks and Nicky Walker, all high earners at their clubs, have announced they are leaving Wales at the end of the season.
The problem with the top players is not that they can command high wages, but the amount of time spent with their regions. Welsh internationals may only be available for their regions for 20 weeks a year once all internationals and Wales training camps are taken into account. Take for example a player, who could be earning a salary of £200,000, if that player played 15 games a season, they are earning in excess of £13,000 a game (or £166 a minute). When you consider a squad play might earn only a fraction of that amount, yet be available all year around it is clear that international players are not value for money.
Of course, the apathy of the Welsh public does not help the situation. With Welsh rugby on the rise and some of the brightest prospects in World rugby playing rugby in Wales, you would have thought that people would be flocking to see these players week in, week out. Yet crowd numbers are, on the whole, falling in Wales. If the crowd numbers did turn up to see these star players, there would inevitably be more cash to keep the players in Wales. Unfortunately that is not the case and the cash strapped regions are having to make tough decisions.
It is a problem that has been simmering for while amongst supporters, many of whom have expressed their concern at the limited game time players get with their regions (George North has appeared for Wales more than he has for the Scarlets). It has created tension amongst those who see the WRU as having the regions over a barrel and being short sighted. If the regions cannot keep hold of top players, they will merely become development regions for wealthier sides outside of Wales. Furthermore, there would be little incentive for regions to develop young players just to be cherry picked by French and English sides. Ultimately this would be to the detriment of the game in Wales as a whole.
It is only now that the regions have publically voiced their concerns about the exodus of players to France. Some of the hardest hitting comments have seen the regions warn that they will not be able to play players wages whilst they are on international duty. Furthermore there have been repeated calls to the WRU to step in to rectify the situation. It seems that the problem must now addressed sooner rather than later. If not it would not be unrealistic to see a Welsh starting line-up in the near future where the majority of players played outside Wales.
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