Regions 'engaged' with central contracts says WRU chief Lewis

Welsh Rugby Union chief Roger Lewis says the four regions are open to the idea of expanding the number of players taking up national contracts.

Last week the regions warned Sam Warburton he might not have a team to play for after the Wales captain became the first to sign a central contract.

But Lewis said both sides have planned for the introduction of more deals.

"What's said publically and what's been negotiated behind the scenes are very contrasting," Lewis told BBC Wales.

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If the regions are not able to contract a player we have to step in, and that's why we stepped in with a national contract for Sam Warburton

Roger Lewis WRU group chief executive

"What we have on the table is a plan that we are discussing with the four regions - and they've engaged with it - is how we can nationally contract a spine, a core of players over the next five, six seven years."

The regions - Cardiff Blues, Newport Gwent Dragons, Ospreys and Scarlets - have stated that, "no agreement to play centrally contracted players in the regions currently exists".

However, they say they are not opposed to central contracts as long as there is a "collective agreement between all four regions".

WRU group chief executive Lewis told Radio Wales Sport that the governing body has been working with the regions for several months on a plan to help stem the flow of Welsh players leaving for richer French and English clubs.

Lewis also said that it was the regions who originally approached the Union seeking help to keep six leading internationals, who were due to come out of contract at the end of this season.

Since then relations between the two sides have deteriorated, with fierce disagreement over how the game is run in Wales, the financial state of the game and what competitions the regions should be playing in.

That has led to the regions refusing to renew the WRU's existing participation agreement, although a new Rugby Services Agreement is being considered by the regions.

"The Welsh regions said they were unable to contract six players. They needed assistance and help with Jonathan Davies, Rhys Priestland, Alun Wyn Jones, Adam Jones, Leigh Halfpenny and Sam Warburton," Lewis said.

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"That's where it all began and then when the participation agreement wasn't signed by December 31st we put our minds to it... and thought how on earth can we keep players in Wales?

"At the same time, how can we reward those regions which develop and retain players in Wales?"

The body that represents the regions, Regional Rugby Wales, say their position on players' contracts has not changed.

"Regional Rugby Wales stands by the integrity of its statement last week regarding central contracts," said a spokesperson on Tuesday.

Warburton signed with the WRU, expecting to be allowed to continue playing for the Blues next season, the flanker's team-mate Leigh Halfpenny opted to join French club Toulon, while their fellow British and Irish Lions star Alun Wyn Jones re-signed with his region, the Ospreys.

"When Leigh then unfortunately signed for Toulon we thought if the regions are not able to contract a player we have to step in, and that's why we stepped in with a national contract for Sam Warburton," Lewis added.

"What we've said to the regions is please sign up [those Wales players coming out of contract] and if you're unable to, for whatever reason, we will then step in and help you and sign them with national contracts.

"A lot of the work was done last autumn with the rugby experts in the regions and with Warren [Wales head coach Gatland] and his team, in identifying our succession plan of those players who we know in a couple of years' time there will be big cheque books out for them."

Lewis revealed that the roll-out of national contracts may eventually include academy and Wales Sevens players, not just the elite stars in the Test side.

But he stressed that any plan to expand national contracts must serve the needs of everyone involved in Welsh rugby.

"There's three parties who have got to be part of this: it's the players, it's the regions and it's the WRU," he added.

"We've got to recognise what is right for all three over a period that goes... up to 2019.

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"We need to be looking at those younger emerging stars as well."

The regions are considering playing in competitions other than the WRU's preferred Heineken Cup and Pro12.

Lewis admitted it was a hugely complicated problem with all the interested parties involved and said there was a major meeting planned for Tuesday in England to try and solve the problem.

"Europe is a sum of many moving parts, it's not just a discussion between ourselves and the four regions," he said.

"It involves all six countries [England, Wales, France, Ireland, Scotland and Italy] and some within the six countries have different agendas.

"But we have to recognise the contractual positions that we've all arrived at and we have to recognise our responsibilities and liabilities to the stakeholders who, legally, we have entered into contractually binding arrangements with."

Another worry for the regions - and for clubs from the other five nations who have participated in the Heineken Cup this year - is the delayed payment of £800,000 for participating in the tournament this season.

This instalment was scheduled to be paid last week by European Rugby Cup (ERC), the company which runs the tournament.

ERC has said that the money was not due to be paid until after a board meeting on 5 February.

Lewis says there is a meeting in Dublin on Wednesday where the situation will be discussed, but warned that company law in Ireland could impact on the scheduled distribution of the money.

"Everyone will be around the table to discuss it, but more importantly there will be legal advice as well open to the directors of the company... that has to be taken in the context of company law, it is not about rugby unfortunately," Lewis added.