Despite some notable success in the last 5 years, I think Wales are falling further behind the top rugby nations. Although I think success in international rugby is partly down to player selection and game management and Gatland has made mistakes in that regard, the Wales coach still has to suffer the consequences of the structure of the game in Wales compared to the other nations against which it is trying to consistently compete.
New Zealand. The structure of the game and the environment is not just highly competitive, there's also a tremendous pool of players to develop and choose from. The same applies to SA, France and England. Ireland have punched well above their weight in the last decade, and it'll be interesting to see how well it does over the next decade as some of the best players they have produced retire.
Australia recognised that they needed to improve their player pool and have introduced a fifth team in the Super tournament, the Melbourne Rebels taking the number of their representatives to 5.
Countries like Argentina will soon benefit by joining the Tri Nations tournament, so it should get even stronger as it grows the number of international fixtures and has a regular tournament to play in, even though its domestic club structure is very weak.
Wales have four regions. The Ospreys have done very well to develop so many players for their region and Wales. The Blues have developed players like Warburton, Roberts and Bradley Davies in recent years. The Dragons had a great season and have developed some players too, as have the Scarlets. The benefactors and owners at all the regions, however, have to balance the need to support the national game with the success required to make their regional businesses viable. To compete in the Heineken Cup, the regions rely on overseas stars to bolster their resources and make their regions more competitive. The rewards can be enormous, with tv revenues contributing a great deal, particularly in the later stages of the Heineken. The consequences -- numerous positions are often dominated by Southern Hemisphere players, especially in the back row, where Wales has been really struggling this season.
The demise of the Celtic Warriors a few years ago was a blow for the fans not only in that region, but to Welsh rugby. It meant that the player pool was significantly reduced. And since then, opportunities to develop talent have been reduced further by the indefinite postponement of the Wales A team.
For Wales to compete on the highest stage, especially against the big three, things have to change or Wales’ further decline is inevitable.
1. The Wales A team must be reinstated.
2. There needs to be a fifth regional side, even if it is a development side, as Connacht is in Ireland.
3. There must be greater limits on the number of players and the number of appearances of overseas, non-Welsh-qualified players.
4. Regions must try to develop their businesses by attracting more fans to the game and making greater efforts to engage with and interact with fans, in an attempt to grow the fan bases and strengthen the regional game. Fans who live locally, are in employment and can afford it, need to support the regional game or they can watch it slowly disappear from their television screens as the game ceases to be able to compete on the professional stage.
5. The WRU and the regions need to work more closely together, to find ways to encourage fans to support the regional and national game and reward fans for doing so. This particularly applies to season ticket holders. Corporate hospitality is a necessary curse, but real rugby fans regularly lose when it comes to international games.
6. I don’t know enough about the issues related to coaching at all levels in the game, but the WRU needs to work harder to improve its coaching programmes and develop good coaches at all levels, especially for the young who take up and learn the game. Obvious systemic weaknesses in our current senior game – the poor lineout performances at the Ospreys and often for Wales, for example – need to be addressed. This, surely, can only improve with better-developed coaches and a greater understanding of how to develop the skills of players at all levels.
7. The development of young players at all age grades must be improved. Too often at under-20 level, our players often seem less well-conditioned than other sides, and there is also a seeming lack of concentration on the skills of the game and encouraging players to express their abilities. There should be less enthusiasm for developing gym monkeys and more an emphasis on developing dynamic, highly skilled athletes that can compete with the Southern Hemisphere’s best.
To some extent, results and performances this year have been affected by injuries to a lot of players. But consider the players at regional level who have had very little opportunity to play at a high level. Promising players such as Gareth Owen, Tom Prydie, Ben Lewis …