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Sport 'I'm really worried about Wales as a rugby nation' - English rugby boss stunned by WRU's 'inexplicable' loan

22:23  12 october  2021
22:23  12 october  2021 Source:   walesonline.co.uk

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Concerns have been raised over the future of rugby in Wales, with the Welsh Rugby Union's move to secure a commercial loan to help the regions survive the Covid-19 pandemic described as 'inexplicable'.

The national side has enjoyed a relatively successful period, winning two of the last three Six Nations championships and reaching the semi-final of a World Cup.

However, the regions have not reached the post-season of their domestic league since the Scarlets were beaten finalists in 2018, the community game faces severe challenges and the women's game is in turmoil.

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The most recent weekend of action was concerning. The Ospreys, Cardiff and Scarlets - all returning to something near full strength - were beaten by the Sharks and the Bulls, who were without their Springbok stars, and a second-string Munster side.

Mark Evans, who has 17 years of experience as a CEO in rugby union and league with Saracens, Harlequins and Melbourne Storm, recently voiced his concerns on The Ruck podcast.

Evans explained his concerns for the game in Wales and questioned the WRU's handling of it.

"I'm really worried about Wales as a rugby nation, I'll be honest," he said.

"I'm worried about it for a whole host of reasons - partly to do with the structure, the funding, the politics and the player pathways and development.

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"I'm casting around for reasons to be cheerful and I'm really struggling. At the minute, it just looks all over the place.

"From friends down there - and I don't claim to know the Welsh scene intimately these days - there doesn't seem to be any real strategy behind it that everyone can agree on.

"In a small country - and Wales sometimes doesn't recognise what a small country it is economically as much as anything - you've all got to be on the same page right through the whole sport.

"If you're not - and Welsh rugby is renowned for its politicking - then you're not going to be very successful."

Like most walks of life, Welsh rugby suffered financially during the pandemic.

The WRU took a revenue hit of £22 million and saw their net debt rise back above £100 million for the financial year ending June 30, 2021.

The loss was largely down to Test matches having to be played behind closed doors. As a result, the WRU's payments to the regions were dramatically reduced and an £18 million loan from Natwest was acquired to make up the shortcomings.

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However, the regions themselves are currently having to pay back the loan via quarterly repayments over three years, which significantly hampers their ability to reinvest in their squad or facilities.

In England, Premiership clubs received loans from the government to survive the pandemic on far more favourable terms.

The WRU have been in talks with the Welsh Government to refinance the loan it took out with Natwest and agree a repayment structure similar to that in England. Those talks were first mooted in February and, as yet, have proved fruitless.

"The English Premiership clubs got loans from the government and some of them took over £10 million," Evans explained.

"Understandably, in Covid they'd lost a lot of money and this was a way to hopefully trade their way out.

"The Welsh regions didn't get that. They got a commercial loan from Natwest because the Welsh Rugby Union and the Welsh Government, for whatever reason, did not go down the same route, where you give a long-term, soft loan to your clubs because they have a cultural importance.

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"When all is said and done, rugby is still very, very culturally important in Wales and to load up the regions with even more debt during a pandemic strikes me as almost inexplicable.

"I just don't get it. It puts those regions, who have lost their crowds to a significant degree and are struggling on the pitch... you try and turn any club around on and off the pitch while battling a financial crisis - good luck."

Later in the podcast, Evans understood the WRU's move to implement a 60-cap policy due to Welsh rugby's inability to compete financially with English and French player markets.

But he insisted the focus should be on developing youngsters and keeping them in the system.

"Wales' future has to be player development. It's got to get more young people - men and women - playing the game and being well developed," said Evans.

Louis Rees-Zammit of Gloucester scores © Getty Images Louis Rees-Zammit of Gloucester scores

"The natural advantage [rugby in] Wales still has is its natural resonance with its population and if that goes, people stop playing it and then there is fewer less of the best athletic talent to draw from.

"Wales has always drawn much of the best athletic talent within the country to rugby. Football as well, of course, but rugby is at least on a par.

"The most worrying signs are that Louis Rees-Zammit went to Gloucester, there are a couple of young guys from the Welsh age group at Exeter Chiefs.

"If that trickle becomes a flood, then I really can't then see a way back."

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