Egg Chasing over the Severn
As the teams were warming up on the pitch, discussions were taking place in a corporate box high up in the Gods of the Millennium Stadium to try and make the sight of Wales and England’s finest locking horns become a weekly spectacle.
David Moffett, the interim chief executive of Regional Rugby Wales and Mark McAfferty, the chief executive of England’s Premier Rugby, met over the weekend to discuss a radical plan to revamp the current EDF Energy Cup, replacing it with an Anglo-Welsh league encompassing teams from the top two tiers of Welsh and English club rugby.
The proposal is still in its early stages, and the next step will be to send details of the meetings to clubs in the Guiness Premiership, all four Welsh regions, the Welsh Premiership and England’s first division. There is an expectancy, however, that the plan will be embraced wholeheartedly.
A resurgent national Welsh team, who beat England this weekend and are on a course for a second Grand Slam, has sparked international interest in Welsh rugby. As an Anglo-Welsh league will revive age old rivalries between Cardiff Blues, the Ospreys and teams such as Bath, Leicester and Gloucester, it is hoped plenty of revenue will be made available for teams on both sides of the border.
The credit crunch, as ever, has played its part. An ever-widening gulf of wealth between the Welsh, English and French leagues is starting to have wide implications. With the newfound strength of the Euro and the lack of a salary cap in the Top 14 division, the cash-rich French are in an unprecedented position of power. It seems increasingly likely that a raft of English players will leave their clubs to play across the Channel this Summer.
As I write, the Beeb has just announced that senior England players such James Haskell and Tom Palmer have both agreed to leave Wasps, the club that bought him through their academy, to play for Stade Francais at the end of the Summer. They have been offered contracts that could treble their existing salary. In addition, England international centre Ricky Flutey, who is also a Wasps player, has just signed for French club Brive. He joins current England fly-half Andy Goode and former internationals Steve Thompson and Ben Cohen. Jonny Wilkinson, the divine son with a voodoo doll, may also swap the delights of Tyneside for the depths of Paris.
Martin Johnson must be sweating. He fought long and hard with the RFU to ensure players were released for their clubs for pre-international training sessions. It was a pre-condition to his appointment. If all his players go to France, he will have to go to the Fédération Française de Rugby cap in hand or battlegear on. The 100 year war could be reprised.
Bad for the English then, and really bad for Wasps, but how will the repercussions be felt in Welsh rugby?
Partly because of the success of the national side, and partly because the Guiness Premiership still has superior financial clout over the Magners League, Welsh players are now very much on the radar. Sale and Northampton, in particular, have been sounding out the availability of several Cardiff Blues players, most notably Andy Powell and the Robinson brothers. More worryingly, Leicester have a growing determination to see Dai Young as their next coach, which may lead to an exodus of Blues joining him at Welford Road. What better way of celebrating the start of a new season than parading a trophy signing of Leigh Halfpenny or Gethin Jenkins?
Warren Gatland’s policy of only picking players based in Wales may be a far-sighted approach, and Powell cited it as a central reason as to why he signed his new contract with the Blues. There is, however, little sign of the interest abating across the border.
Creating an Anglo-Welsh league, with the extra revenue it promises, could be seen as a proactive attempt by both the Welsh and English Unions to ensure home-grown English talent isn’t lured to France, and home-grown Welsh talent isn’t lured to England. Let us hope it works.