Victory over England counts for so much in Wales that if Ken Owens’ team are punching the air in the Principality Stadium at around 6.30pm on Saturday evening, the temptation will be strong to forget all the problems in the Welsh game.
Win or lose, though, they will continue to exist, and they were neatly summarised by Owens, the eloquent Wales captain, after Wednesday’s summit meeting that averted a strike by the players. “We need to do it collaboratively together, to put Welsh rugby back at the top end of world rugby, and not the laughing stock which I think we are at the moment,” Owens said.
So who is it that is “laughing” at Wales, and are there good reasons? The more I asked these questions in recent days, the more I felt a sense of fear. Welsh players’ fear of missing out on better wages elsewhere, or on winning trophies if they stayed loyally at home.
Welsh regions’ fear of missing out, as the Irish lead the way in the URC and European competition – and never mind the South Africans arriving to make life yet more difficult. Grassroots representatives on the Welsh Rugby Union who fear losing their influence and tickets.
Professionals, past and present, employed by the Union, fearing the sack or exposure unless they reform the governing body. And the overall fear, not exclusive to Wales, of teenagers finding other things to do; Ireland’s system of rugby in public schools, particularly in Leinster, is helping them to defy this societal trend.
Of course, a thoroughly positive mindset could turn all the above into opportunities to innovate and succeed.
David Buttress, the Just Eat entrepreneur who is chairman of one of Wales’ four regional teams, the Dragons, appears to favour spending the way out of trouble. Memories are fresh of Wales’ four Grand Slams and two World Cup semi-finals within the past 20 years. But Italy and Georgia won in Cardiff last year and Wales have lost 11 of the last 14 Tests.
In the face of a paralysis by analysis of budgets and bank borrowing and contracts, a select group of Welsh players with 25 to 60 caps are now theoretically free to earn more money in other countries – which may also make them better players.
On the flipside, staying at their regions means being available for every Wales training session, a principle the national head coach Warren Gatland reiterated this week. And anyway, is there a queue of English, French and Japanese clubs offering big deals?
One level below them are the regions’ 100 or so other professional players, still contemplating job losses or pay cuts, and surely less chance of their teams improving on a dire record of never winning the Champions Cup, and taking just one title in the URC in the past 10 years.
The old joke is that if you put two Welsh rugby lovers in a room they will form a committee; put three in a room and they’ll form two committees. Maybe it takes a row to rouse them to act.
But the utterly serious allegations of sexism and misogyny in the WRU’s management is now under independent investigation, while an extraordinary general meeting on 26 March will discuss governance changes including greater female representation on the WRU board, as per UK Sport guidelines. Goodness knows what the fallout will be if the amateur clubs and districts block it.
Gareth Davies, the former WRU chairman, is assisting the independent inquiry so could not comment this week, but he has told i in the past the “blazers” need to leave the professional board to those with experience of big business.
No wonder Sam Davies, the Dragons fly-half in the mould of playmaking Welsh No 10s, tweeted: “Another day in the jungle.” Some critics of the WRU say it is too preoccupied with capital projects and servicing debt.
One region’s director told i adamantly last week that four regions should become three, to “transform the cash flow and the profitability within the model – the WRU are pretty much maxed out on their banking facilities with their balance sheets”.
There is a possibility of club competitions changing to fit a new global season; the Welsh must be agile enough to react. Of course some have always loathed the regions, implemented in 2003, and would return to Cardiff, Llanelli, Neath, Swansea and the rest. But the question of whether they could ever beat Leinster and Toulouse and Stormers can be added to the pile.