Back in the 1980s, before rugby union became a professional sport, the main problem in Welsh rugby was that we would lose our best players to rugby league, which was a professional sport. The phrase used was that so-and-so would be “going up North” (as rugby league is predominantly played in the North of England).
Rugby union turned professional in 1995, so the drain of talented Welsh players to rugby league has ceased. But, in its place is an almost equally damaging drain, our most talented players are going to play in France and England because of the offer of more money than they can earn in Wales. In the last few years, several of Wales’ national team players have gone to France to play, including Gethin Jenkins, James Hook and Mike Phillips.
Welsh rugby, after successfully defending their 6 Nations title by smashing England 30-3 a few weeks ago, now finds itself in turmoil over George North. He has been playing for the Scarlets this last several seasons, but has apparently been lured to go to the English club Northampton next season. What is worrying about this is how young he is, North is right at the start of his career, so that his leaving Wales in search of more money when he is still climbing to the height of his rugby career is very worrying.
A row seems to have broken out between North’s region, The Scarlets, and the Welsh Rugby Union (WRU). The WRU claim that the Scarlets entered into talks to sell North with various clubs without even informing the player. Whether there is any truth to this accusation we will have to see, but I find the whole episode sad on two counts. First, as I have said above, it is very worrying when Wales’ youngest talent is thinking of leaving Welsh regional rugby to earn more money elsewhere. Secondly, yet again after some success, Welsh rugby starts internally squabbling. Why are the Welsh so adept at this?
Throughout our history, going back to to the time of Rhodri Mawr (after whom I was named) in the 9th Century, Wales usually disintegrates into internal squabbling and back-biting. Even our last native prince, Llywelyn Fawr, was probably killed by the betrayal of a fellow Welshman who had been paid by Edward the 1st of England. After the 2005 Grand Slam (our first since the 1970s), Welsh rugby disintegrated into chaos with Mike Ruddock resigning amid rumours of a “player power” takeover of his authority.
One of the several issues the four Welsh rugby regions and the WRU are currently squabbling over is central contracts, a subject to which I will return in the next week or so. I only hope both the Welsh rugby regions and the WRU can keep in mind that the most important thing in Welsh rugby is the success of our National team. All else is secondary to that goal. It would be very sad if the fighting going on in Welsh rugby presently were to detract from the glittering future which could lie ahead of our National team if their talents are channelled and nurtured correctly.