WRU boss admits they got it wrong on Welsh Premiership that’s been messed with for years
Welsh rugby chief Geraint John has admitted the decision to distance the Premiership from the professional game was a mistake.
Four years ago, John was involved in an extensive review process that canvassed clubs, players and other stakeholders, paving the way for regional under-23 teams to replace the Premiership as the vehicle to develop the best young players in Wales.
At the time, the semi-pro tier was not deemed to be adequately preparing prodigious young talents for the rigours of the elite game. By 2018, ‘Premiership select’ teams run by the four regions had replaced the clubs in the British and Irish Cup but were routinely hammered, winning just 17 of 73 matches before the competition was binned.
Then the under-23 teams were established to develop players but, in truth, the venture never really got off the ground. The regions, whose squad sizes are now shrinking due to increased financial pressures, do not have the numbers to support an under-23 side, and there are questions over whether they ever had the resources to do it adequately in the first place.
Now, though, the Premiership is once again viewed as the ideal finishing school for budding Welsh stars.
Speaking to WalesOnline at the launch of the 2022/23 season, John said: “I was part of that group in 2018 and it’s easy to look back with hindsight.
“If you look at the regions right now, the sizes of squads, costs, salaries – the landscape has probably changed and we have to make sure we change with it as well. It’s different to what it was four years ago.
“Did it work? I’ll put my hand up and say no it didn’t work. We felt at the time that it was the right thing to do but now we’ve got to make sure that what we do in the next 12 to 24 months is make sure we’ve got the right structure to benefit the clubs and Welsh rugby as a whole, to make us successful.
“We want Wales to be successful but what underpins that? The regional game. What underpins the regional game? It’s the club game.”
The consequence of the decision four years ago is that the Premiership now falls under the jurisdiction of the Community Game Board, made up of clubs representatives. The WRU executive, including new Performance Director Nigel Walker, want to streamline the league to raise the standard of it, ensuring it bridges the gap between age-grade and professional rugby effectively.
But any such move now has to be ratified by the Community Game Board, which last year voted for the league to be expanded to 14 teams from next season. A move which WalesOnline understands is set to go ahead.
John said: “We’ve had the conversation about how we make the Premiership better. The conversation we’re constantly having revolves around the question ‘is it the top of the community game or the bottom end of the performance department?’
“Those are ongoing discussions. The key thing is that it’s great having Nigel Walker (WRU Performance Director) involved and John Alder (WRU Head of Player Development).
“We need this league but, right now, can we make it better? Yes is the answer. We have to do that collectively.”
He added: “We firmly believe that the Premiership clubs play a major part in the development of young players. That’s what we want.
“The under-20s went away to Italy and did exceptionally well but there are a group of players that won’t get into the regional set-ups. So where are they going to play? Through ourselves, the performance department and the relationships with the clubs, there is an opportunity here for those players.
“We have a working group that includes the performance department and we’re working together, totally aligned, to make sure these things happen.
“Whatever we do, we have to look at it from a strategic point of view and what is right for Welsh rugby. That is always at the forefront of all the conversations.”