Welsh rugby has been suffering from a series of off the field debacles, and it appears the current state of provincial rugby, regardless of the country’s international form, is driving an exodus of young talent across the border to England.
Most recently, Wales U18s star and Cardiff academy product Christ Tshiunza signed a four year contract with the Exeter Chiefs, with Tshiunza rejecting the largest contract Cardiff have ever offered an academy player to join a string of young Welsh stars plying their trade in England.
Amongst this ever growing list are Archie Gill, of Bath, an U18s international and prop, the highly rated fullback/flyhalf Ioan Lloyd of Bristol, along with Louis Rees-Zammit, Alex Morgan and Harry Randell of Gloucester and Saracen’s Sam Wainwright.
Cardiff did all they could to hold on to Tshiunza, according to Gruff Rees, the Cardiff academy director, “it was the biggest academy contract we have ever put out,” because the 6 foot 6 inch second row is deemed one of the brightest stars in Welsh rugby, “he has got that raw potential and athleticism, which we crave.”
But why are players leaving Wales? Well, the financial imbalance between the Premiership clubs and Welsh regions is marked and growing. For Tshiunza however, money was not the priority, emphasising the current gulf between Welsh and English club sides he stated, “Exeter have a proven record of bringing through young talent and developing them into top class players.”
Another echoing this opinion is Rhys Carre, the promising U20s scrum half who will be playing for Saracens next year, “I was approached by Saracens and a few other English clubs. Who wouldn’t want to speak to teams like that? Saracens are winners.”
The implication being made by both Tshiunza and Carre, of course, is that the Welsh regions cannot boast of such a proven record of player development and success.
Having been toured round Saracen’s facilities by the Vunipola brothers and offered the prospect of joining the current European champions, it is hard to begrudge Carre his decision. What must be of concern, however, is the emerging pattern of departing players young players.
For Tommy Refell, another U20s star, it was the massive reputation and infrastructure of Leicester Tigers that convinced him to move, as well as the opportunity to play Premiership Rugby.
At the minute, the Welsh regions simply cannot compete with the top English clubs on or off the pitch. No Welsh side made it into the Pro 14 play offs last season, and only one can offer European Champions Cup rugby in the coming campaign.
The comparative strengths of the Welsh and English clubs are revealed in the quality of player that they are able to attract. After the World Cup, 82 top level southern hemisphere players are departing for pastures new, and only one of them, the relatively unheralded Scarlets signing Sam Lousi, will be playing in Wales. Over twenty-five new Super Rugby stars will be playing in next year’s Premiership.
Whilst ambitious midtable clubs like Sale have the financial muscle to recruit current England and South African internationals in Mark Wilson and Lood de Jager, Cardiff Blues are currently embroiled in another financial fiasco, owing their landlords £140,000 for Cardiff Arms Park.
The impact these issues will have on Cardiff is as of yet unclear, but such problems create an atmosphere of chaos and incompetence around Welsh rugby that must be influencing players like Tshiunza in their decisions to leave. Ultimately, clubs like Saracens, Exeter and Gloucester are not just richer but better run.
Shane Williams demonstrated his anger at the situation, saying, “I can’t tell you how frustrated I am about the continuing off the field nonsense we have to deal within Welsh rugby.” Williams went on to declare, “I’m utterly sick of it,” the worry for Wales, is that current and emerging players may be thinking the same thing.
Written by Joe Ronan