Welsh rugby: Talks over radical overhaul with possible new region

By Gareth Griffiths & Gareth RobertsBBC Sport Wales
Fans protest the potential changes
Supporters of Ospreys paraded banners protesting possible governance changes in 2014

Welsh domestic rugby could be set for its most radical upheaval since the game went regional in 2003.

Ideas for the 2020-21 season include a new region based in north Wales.

That would leave the number of regions being potentially reduced from four to three in south Wales with the clubs either merging or one being disbanded to make way for a new side.

This would then leave four regions covering the north, south, west and east of Wales.

This proposed policy had even been lined up for the 2019-2020 season but any final decisions now be delayed until the 2020-2021 campaign following discussions between the Welsh Rugby Union and regions which have been dubbed as "Project Reset".

A merger between Ospreys and Cardiff Blues was considered for next season but Ospreys managing director Andrew Millward confirmed that was not going to happen.

The status quo is set to last for at least one more season and the WRU and regional bosses are understood to be currently committed to keeping four regions long-term, although there maybe more funding for the higher-performing sides.

It has proved a fractious time for regional rugby in a period when the Wales national team has won a record 12 games in a row and remains on course for a Grand Slam in Warren Gatland's final season in charge.

Following Wales' 21-13 win against England, captain Alun Wyn Jones said off the field issues in Wales "were not the prettiest," and his future remains unresolved with his contract up after the World Cup later this year.

No final decision has been reached about the 2020-21 season with more meetings set to be held over the next few months, leaving an impasse in talks.

The WRU have made no formal statement since January on the issue when chief executive Martyn Phillips said "difficult decisions will be made for the game's future" and "nothing was off the table."

Alun Wyn Jones: 'Off-field rugby in Wales isn't the prettiest'

Why the change?

Fears over the long-term financial sustainability of Welsh rugby's professional teams have driven the decisions for change from some quarters.

No Welsh side has won the European Champions Cup since the inception of regional rugby in 2003. This season none qualified for the knockout stages of either European competition.

There has been a structural change with representatives of Blues, Ospreys, Scarlets, the WRU and union-owned Dragons sitting on the newly-created Professional Rugby Board (PRB).

The PRB has discussed the structure and financing of the professional game since the autumn.

But progress towards a Professional Rugby Agreement (PRA) between the regions and union has been slower than anticipated leaving regions saying they have been unable to offer new deals to players out of contract at the end of 2019-20.

Stadiwm Zip World
Stadiwm Zip World, Colwyn Bay

Northern powerhouse?

Leading figures in the WRU have long hoped to see a professional team based in north Wales which they are confident will attract strong financial and fan backing.

Rygbi Gogledd Cymru (RCG) were formed in 2008 to play in the second-tier Welsh Premiership, but there has never been a full-time professional, top-tier team in the north.

There is a 6,000-capacity ground at Parc Eirias in Colwyn Bay, Stadiwm Zip World, where Wales Under-20s play their home fixtures.

The biggest sporting team in north Wales currently is Wrexham Football Club, which plays in English football's National League.

A planned WRU board meeting this week considered the proposed budgets for next season with a basic total approaching £19m between the four regions.

There will also be changes in the way players are paid with a new banding system being introduced and dual contracts being phased out.

A revamp of Welsh rugby's regions would come 16 years after an initial five were launched from the clubs.

Celtic Warriors - a merger of the Pontypridd and Bridgend clubs - went out of existence after the first season, 2003-04.

Neath-Swansea Ospreys evolved into Ospreys with Llanelli Scarlets and Newport Gwent Dragons, who became WRU owned in 2017, also eventually dropping their geographical monikers.

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