As the rugby world prepares for the 2014 Six Nations Championship in the coming weeks, the tournament’s arrival will provide a welcome distraction from issues surrounding the domestic game in Wales.
Welsh and British & Irish Lions Captain Sam Warburton last week became the first Welsh player to sign a central contract with the Welsh Rugby Union, setting a precedent that many people hope will be followed in the coming months by his fellow international stars.
The domestic game in Wales has seen significant change in recent seasons, as several players from Welsh Regions have decided to further their club careers on foreign soil. Many international stars, notably Jonathan Davies, Jamie Roberts and Dan Lydiate have moved across the Channel to France in search of more competitive club rugby and higher rewards for their services. Wing sensation George North last summer joined Northampton Saints in England’s Premiership, while most recently, Leigh Halfpenny agreed a deal with Heineken Cup holders Toulon for a reported £395,000 a year salary.
Warburton has signalled his intent to stay at home, and while he could easily have followed several of his teammates in joining the more lucrative French league, Warburton has committed his future to the domestic game – even at a time where a new agreement between the WRU and its regions to play centrally contracted players has still to be settled.
The Welsh Captain’s decision is groundbreaking, and a signal of immense trust that he has put in domestic parties to make an agreement for the good of the Welsh game. His choice to sign the new three year deal with the WRU is yet to guarantee him a future even with his current region, Cardiff Blues, and could see him playing at a lower standard of rugby should the WRU and its regions remain at loggerheads. Warburton’s choice is one of integrity, and his love of Cardiff and Welsh rugby itself are the key reasons for his stay.
The general situation stems from the four Welsh Regions – the Dragons, Scarlets, Ospreys and Blues – collectively exploring other options to the previous Participation Agreement with the WRU, which had been in place since 2009. The agreement surrounds matters such as what competitions the regions play in and compensation for player release for international duty. However, due to English and French club withdrawal from Europe’s Heineken Cup next season, there are questions over revenue and healthy competition in coming seasons. The regions are yet to sign an extension to the participation agreement for both the PRO12 league and future European competition, and instead may seek to negotiate their own futures with a view to establishing more lucrative deals.
As a result, the WRU may need to create new clubs should the regions migrate, and these question marks are what make the timing of Warburton’s decision extremely noble. His support for his country is tremendously evident, and his confidence in committing his future to his home nation will be the catalyst for a change in direction of the overall situation.
Warburton’s maturity and leadership have, over the years, developed tenfold on the pitch, and showing such integrity off it are what makes him a great role model for the aspiring rugby players of tomorrow. At the age of 25, Warburton’s best years are still ahead. After the new deal has been signed it is now clear that Wales will retain their leader as he enters the peak years of his career. Welsh rugby will continue to change over the next few months, and with Warburton’s appropriate decision it will set a precedent for future stars to follow his lead.
What needs to happen for the WRU and its regions to move forward? What are the benefits of their cohesion? Who will follow Warburton’s lead?