Wales must now leave the URC and finally make Anglo-Welsh league happen

-Credit: (Image: Gareth Everett/Huw Evans Agency)
-Credit: (Image: Gareth Everett/Huw Evans Agency)

After the Welsh Rugby Union announced its headline five-year strategy on Wednesday, by far the biggest talking point centred on the governing body's precarious financial position and the possibility of dropping down to three professional sides.

The WRU and the Professional Rugby Board (PRB) will spend this summer trying to find ways to bridge a gigantic £35m funding gap to the pro game. Put simply big changes are needed, but what also needs to change is the competition all four Welsh sides participate in.

The United Rugby Championship has its merits, it's a tough competition full of quality sides which has served Ireland and Scotland well, but it does not work for Wales. There is a huge apathy towards the URC in Wales which doesn't purely stem from the Welsh clubs struggling for on-field success.

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Welsh rugby's culture is tribal in nature and there is no doubt whatsoever the vast majority of rugby fans in Wales yearn for regular fixtures against English clubs. It's what the market wants and it's where Welsh rugby truly belongs.

Former WRU CEO Glanmor Griffiths' decision in 1999 to turn down five places in the top two divisions of English rugby is undoubtedly the worst in the entire history of Welsh rugby. The current WRU hierarchy along with representatives on the professional rugby board simply must make an Anglo-Welsh league their number one priority.

It would be the saving grace of Welsh rugby and now is the time to act. With the WRU struggling to sustain four professional sides, moving to England might be the thing that saves them.

It would be transformational. To begin with it would capture the imagination of the Welsh public.

What would make a casual Dragons fan more likely to attend Rodney Parade on a cold and wet Friday night in November; a clash with lowly Zebre or a full-blooded Anglo-Welsh fixture against historic West Country rivals Bath, Bristol Bears or Gloucester?

The answer is blindingly obvious. Regular fixtures against English clubs fixes the away fan problem - they are virtually non-existent in the URC outside of Welsh derbies - the Welsh clubs would also be exposing themselves to a wider audience, their commercial revenues would likely grow exponentially, while the presence of a league-wide salary cap would also help, not to mention the potential for a far more lucrative TV deal than they presently have in the URC.

What's also significant is the cost base of all four Welsh sides would drop dramatically if they were to leave the URC. For last weekend's URC final, Glasgow Warriors had to spend between £8,000-£10,000 per plane ticket to get to Pretoria which must have cost the Scottish Rugby Union in the region of £500,000 to play a final where there is very little prize money for winning.

To put things into perspective, the South African Rugby Union spends £16m per year on travel costs between EPCR and the URC. Every away fixture outside of Wales is a flight and at least one night's accommodation which amounts to hundreds of thousands of pounds a year competing in the URC.

The money which would be saved by potentially leaving the URC for the Premiership could be invested back into the Welsh clubs. What they've got at the moment simply isn't sustainable.

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Anglo-Welsh fixtures are most definitely the best chance of attracting casual rugby fans to games in Wales. Just look at the attendances for Cardiff's Champions Cup clashes against Bath and Harlequins. Cardiff were very unlikely to win either of those games but fans were attracted by the historic rivalry and the relevance of Anglo-Welsh fixtures, while both English clubs brought a strong contingent of travelling support.

Of course, identifying a potential solution is one thing but finding a way of making it a reality is another thing altogether. But with the WRU's URC contract up in two years there may be an opening and they simply must do everything in their power to make it a reality.

I can already hear the cries of 'what would the Welsh bring to the Premiership?' Considering the Gallagher Premiership has lost London Irish, Wasps and Worcester Warriors it would bring three or four extra home gates.

I'm fairly confident the Welsh sides would be competitive on the field within two seasons if there remains a salary cap, while they would eventually be in a stronger financial position in England than the URC. But CVC, who own a stake in both competitions, are the important players.

If they think having a Welsh presence in the Premiership will increase revenue then I don't see why they wouldn't go for it. It has long been suggested that CVC may one day try to push both the URC and Premiership together into one competition.

The problem with this is the English won't want to lose a competition which works for them but what about a tournament where there is a clear URC conference and perhaps an Anglo-Welsh conference with sides only playing other teams in their own conference? Then at the end of the season there could be a play-off format between both competitions similar to a Super Bowl-style format.

Also, if Wales' clubs were to defect over to England it opens up a few places in the URC which could be used to bring back the Cheetahs and Georgian outfit Black Lion. These are just a few ideas to consider.

However, to put it bluntly, no matter how much marketing is thrown at it, the URC simply does not work for Wales and making some form of Anglo-Welsh competition a reality has to be the WRU's number one priority.