04 Mar Project Reset – the thoughts of a Welsh rugby nut
So, Project Reset. A term being banded about within Welsh Rugby (and beyond), but should it be called something different, and does the word ‘reset’ tell far more of a story?
Yes, it is a ‘project’ but to use the word ‘reset’. You might as well line up the WRU big wigs in an identity parade and ask who was responsible for creating what we have today back in 2003 when Llanelli Scarlets, Neath Swansea Ospreys, Cardiff Blues, Newport Gwent Dragons and Celtic Warriors were formed (we’ll come back to the teams in bold at a later date). Anyone can tell you that regional rugby hasn’t worked as well as it should have. Anyone can tell you that the regions have failed some what when it comes to Champions Cup performances, which, at the end of the day are what players and coaches are judged on. Much like the Champions League in football, it’s the holy grail. It’s THE tournament that teams in Europe want to win (OK, maybe minus the French who place utmost importance on the Top 14) and there’s no denying that NO Welsh region has ever won Europe’s flagship rugby tournament. Yes, there’s been a few flashes in the pan in terms of 1/4 final qualification, and some near misses, but season after season the ambition of Welsh regions isn’t to really win it is it? It’s to get to the 1/4 finals. Where’s the ambition in that? Which has got me thinking.
Back to these regions (in bold above). Formed in 2003 to represent geographical areas, correct? Wrong. Why on earth were supporters of Llandovery, Carmarthen Quins and the ‘X’ amount of other ‘Llanelli Scarlets’ feeder clubs forced to have to support a team playing out of Llanelli, called Llanelli, who play in Scarlet. Why, were the hardcore Gwent rugby fans in places such as Pontypool, Ebbw Vale, Cross Keys etc forced to have to follow a team playing out of Newport, called Newport, wearing Black and Amber? In South West Wales the situation wasn’t much different, with Neath Swansea monickers doing nothing to attract supporters from outside of those towns. The same applies to a certain extent to Cardiff Blues, but at the time of inception they didn’t represent anyone other than Cardiff, South Glamorgan, Vale of Glamorgan etc.
Then there was the Celtic Warriors. A TRUE REGION. Having been involved in rugby for a number of years (in some shape or form as a volunteer at Bridgend RFC / Bridgend Ravens since the early 90’s), the change in the regional landscape was huge, BUT the Celtic Warriors embraced it. 100%. Agree with me or not, here are the facts.
- 1 A new name to represent the people of Bridgend, Maesteg, Pontypridd and the surrounding valleys.
- A new emblem, a combination (albeit a fairly ugly creation!) of the updated Bridgend Raven’s crest and Pontypridd’s famous Black and White bridge.
- Two bases – Bridgend’s Brewery Field and Pontypridd’s Sardis Road. Both who shared fixtures.
- A kit that was a clear combination of Blue, White and Black, the primary colours of the two main clubs.
- No forcing supporters to support self titled super clubs, directors of whom refused to lose their names purely down to their own greed.
- A team made up of 99% Welsh players – the likes of Neil Jenkins, Dafydd James, Gareth Thomas, Chris Horsman, Gethin Jenkins, Mefin Davies, Richard Parkes, Gareth Wyatt, Gareth Cooper, Ceri Sweeney, Ryan Jones etc.
In brief, the Warriors had HUGE potential. As outlined by the 10,000 crowd at the Brewery Field when they faced Wasps on 17th Jan 2004, going down 12-17 to a Lawrence Dallaglio, Simon Shaw, Joe Worsley, Rob Howley et al inspired English outfit, coached by none other than a Mr Gatland. This, just a week after the Warriors had defeated a star studded Wasps team 14-9 in a Heineken Cup epic at Wycombe Wanderers’ Adams Park. What’s more, the Warriors, in just their first season, became the ONLY team to defeat Wasps in the Heineken Cup that season. Some achievement, and one that will live long in the memory. An achievement that we could only dream of during these seemingly dark days of regional rugby.
What happened to the Celtic Warriors, when Leighton Samuel agreed to sell up his shares in the club to the union, and when the other regions paid £300k each to effectively close us (note the reference to ‘us’, as I still class myself as a Celtic Warrior) was an absolute travesty, but there’s no crying over split milk all these years on. Regional rugby has moved on and I don’t need to go into the detail. I’ve moved on (a bit!), but there are many thousands who haven’t. Many thousands (my dad, close friends and their families included) who haven’t forgotten what happened ‘when the WRU closed down their regional representative team’, and never will until their dying day.
Back to Project Reset though. The word ‘reset’ means ‘to set, adjust, or fix in a new or different way’. So, what are they going to do now to ‘reset’ things. To improve things. To save money. What exactly is the strategy behind this project reset business? It’s easy enough to say ‘we need to be better in Europe’ and ‘we need more money’, BUT how is it going to happen, and at what risk?
Let me get this straight. We currently run 4 regions, correct? I’ll give them the benefit of the doubt here and call them Scarlets, Blues, Dragons and Ospreys. What have each region actually won during the inception of regional rugby. Ospreys lead the way with 4 Celtic League titles, an EDF Anglo Welsh Cup and a victory over the Australian tourists. Scarlets have a couple of Celtic League titles to their name, Blues have two second tier European titles and the Dragons, well, they’d be lucky to beat themselves in a match. So looking at it that way, if the WRU (the union) was to look at culling one region to form another one, then surely it has to be the under performing Dragons, who are currently propping up the PRO14 along with might Zebre Rugby, right? Wrong.
In 2017, under a big fanfare, Newport Gwent Dragons officially changed their name and branding to Dragons. A new £700,000 pitch. Wiping out of the debt of Newport Gwent Dragons Rugby Ltd or whatever they were called. What a move. A move to finally appease thousands of Gwent rugby fans, once the heartbeat of Welsh rugby during the pomp of Pontypool’s dominance of the Welsh club game when crowds of 10,000 plus were regular at ‘The Park’ and when they had a pack feared the world over thanks to the Pontypool front row. The start of a new era of Gwent rugby. Umm, no.
At the announcement, newly heralded WRU CEO Martyn Phillips revealed a three year plan, and I quote “A three year road-map for success with the opening 12 months of the new company seeing the appointment of a new board and chairman with a firm focus on representing Gwent’s 73 clubs.” New Dragons CEO Stuart Davies, former Swansea No 8 also said “We need the support of rugby fans throughout the region and we are determined to be filling Rodney Parade to its rafters by 2020.”
How has that worked out? Well, here goes:
- Dragons are this season on course for 12th season out of 16 as the BOTTOM Welsh region
- The coach employed by the WRU to take control of the Dragons, SACKED, not replaced as of March 4th 2019
- No increase in crowds or new support from the wider region despite the name change
Now, I’m not a business man, far from it, but if the WRU are looking at resetting things, and looking to improve things, surely you look at the most under performing part of any business and make cuts accordingly. If a team’s not winning, not performing, not making money, not drawing in the crowds, and it’s coming up to 2 years of a 3 year plan (and they’re way off packing Rodney Parade to the rafters!), how on earth can that be seen to be any sort of success? Eureka. The Union have a cunning plan, and what a plan it is. Bear with me on this one.
I like a comparison, layman’s terms helps, trust me, so I’ve conjured up a comparison of Project Reset. Let’s feature 4 pupils in a school. A welsh speaker who’s been very bright over the past few years with a red cap on. There’s a pupil with a black and white cap on, who has for 90% of his time in school top of the class, really going places, known for his intelligence and success rate. We also have a blue and black capped pupil, who, despite a few tough years, has shown willing over the past few years and is showing potential, then there’s the little fella in the Red and Black cap. The one who’s continually failing. The one who promises very little in or out of class despite the efforts of the teachers, and all the help and investment he can get. He has, for far too long, pissed off too many people and there’s really looking like there’s no way of real progress.
It’s A-Level time. There’s 3 places left in the sixth form. Each of the 4 pupils want to do their A-Levels. Jonny Scarlet, in the red hat, he’s fine. He’s shown enough to be able to graduate. Bobby, in the blue and black hat also has done enough to be able to graduate to his A-Levels, leaving 1 place between 2 pupils. Oliver, in the Black and White hat and Dai in the Red and Black hat are slugging it out for the final place.
Now Oliver has passed all his exams, has traditionally been a fantastic role model for the school and is known for his success. Dai on the other hand, is somewhat behind. He’s not got much going for him, everyone knows he doesn’t pull his weight and can’t really offer the school much. So, what does the school do in its wisdom? They decide one day that Oliver has to move schools, because they’re giving the final place to yes, you guessed it, under performing, constant under achiever Dai. What they see in him, is anyone’s guess. But… there’s a twist.
After Oliver sadly leaves the school, a new place suddenly comes up for grabs for A-Levels, and it’s a boy called Richard. An unknown quantity. One who’s not really known for his academic or sporting ability, but one which the school is willing to take a risk on. Some people (especially those close to Richard) have said that Richard will be a success. Some people have said that Richard won’t be a success, but one thing strikes me. If it’s such a pivotal time, why on earth has Oliver, the best performing student in the school been ditched for a pupil unknown to most?
Yes, I can see to a certain extent why things need to be looked at and reviewed (the operative word here I feel), maybe not at a time when Wales are chasing Grand Slam glory ahead of a huge World Cup campaign in Japan, but at what cost? Another few thousand rugby fans being alienated in an area that is THE hot bed of rugby in Wales. Forget North Wales. It has a development region in the Principality Premiership which is getting funded far greater than any of the so called traditional big clubs in Wales are yet RGC as it stands are 10th in the Premiership, 28 points from the top of the league. In the current national cups, we are at 1/4 and semi final stage, and if my mind serves me correct, there is NO North Wales representation in any of the latter stages of the cup competitions, including the WRU National Cup, with RGC compete in. Take the likes of Bridgend Sports, who have, on two occasions this season headed to North Wales in the WRU National Bowl and been victorious on both occasions, against Wrexham and most recently Dolgellau both of whom are flying high in Division Two North. Granted, the leagues aren’t as strong in standard as in the south, which begs the question, where is the talent in the North going to come from once ‘Richard RFC’ is set up by the big wigs in the union if they get their own way?
The PRO14 or Principality Premiership is hardly over run with players from North Wales. The Welsh squad (George North an exception) is hardly full of ‘Gogs’. The U20 squad and U18’s the same, give or take one or two. For the union (I can’t bare myself to write their full name anymore) to put their faith in a North Wales rugby region (Richard), at the expense of the most successful regional rugby team to date – Ospreys (Oliver) while not being able to run a successful regional team in Gwent (Dai), which has a huge, captive audience of rugby fans and clubs is somewhat worrying and down right baffling.
Will I, 10 years down the line be writing another blog titled Project Reset Reset? Mentioning that Dragons still don’t pack an 8,000 capacity stadium to the rafters? That they’re actually playing their home games in the re-vamped Pontypool Park in front of a 1/10th of the crowd that the famed Pontypool teams of the 70’s use to play in front of? That Jonny Scarlet is still doing well, but not quite hitting the heights that he was expected to reach, or maybe that the Celtic Warriors have been bought back from the dead, and playing in front of 10,000 fans in Bridgend against much fancied European Champions RGC 1404 (or whatever Richard RFC is going to be called!)?
Who knows what will happen, but one thing is for sure. They need to get it right this time, before another identity parade of the clueless WRU (oh christ, I said it) big wigs from Westgate Street needs to be arranged. Despite Wales riding the crest of the wave of a record breaking unbeaten run under Mr Gatland (the Celtic Warriors managed to beat him you know!!!), the national game of Wales can’t afford the risk of yet more thousands of supporters walking away from the game.
Who’s to say what would have happened if ALL regional teams were FORCED to drop any reference to super club status? Would we be complaining of a lack of fans, a lack of affinity, a lack of following and a need for a North Wales region? I think not.
To sum up though, there’s a word I’ve not mentioned much and it’s ‘money’. Wales were successful in the 70’s, some might say more so than they are today when the game was amateur. Welsh club rugby had huge crowds in the 70’s (bigger than today) when the game was amateur, BUT money has changed the game. The end. England have a huge deal with CVC. France have massive TV deals meaning their clubs are funded far more than the Welsh regions are. Regardless of how many regions are in existence, where they are located, what they are called, money talks. Simple as that. Back to layman’s terms. A Ford Focus can’t beat a Formula One car in a race unless something drastic happens, and 9 times out of 10, it never will, but there’s always that chance that it might out perform the formula one car if it has an off day. There’s always the chance that the good old, tried and tested Ford Focus, when given a bit of TLC, a few new wheels, an engine to rival the best out there could start to beat the Formula One car on a more regular basis if it’s looked after a bit better.
There are also some lyrics as used by Kylie Minogue in a hit song which rings true to me.
They go something like this…
Say you won’t leave me no more
I’ll take you back again
No more excuses, no no
‘Cause I’ve heard them all before
A hundred times or more
I’ll forgive and forget
If you say you’ll never go
‘Cause it’s true what they say
It’s better the devil you know
I wonder if the big wigs in Westgate Street listen to Kylie? Let’s hope they do, for Welsh Rugby’s sake.