Imagine Wales having four professional rugby sides .... we do? OK, but imagine one in the east called Dragons (tick) one in the south called Blues (not quite), one in the north called North Wales Bay Buccaneers (a cool half a million already) and one in the west called Scarlet Ospreylian Wizards (just think triangles).
Imagine every player contracted to the Welsh Rugby Union, every coach, every physiotherapist, every strength and conditioning expert, every secretary, every steward, every team manager, and every barista and server of food and drink. Imagine the four professional grounds in Llanelli, Cardiff, Newport and Colwyn Bay hosting Pro14 and European rugby games. Imagine the Welsh Rugby Union controlling every playing contract, every decision, every kit contract, every drink consumed, every item of food digested, every business plan, every expense claim, every request for additional funding. Imagine the cost, imagine the laissez faire swipe of the pen as the signature settles on the brilliant white paper. Imagine.
Actually, it is not that difficult, just look toward the television deals that have been struck, the roll out, reversal, reiteration and finally the inequity of the NDC (No Decipherable Clue?). The Governing body has more than enough spinning plates to get too deeply involved in the professional game. Gwent Dragons, currently taking a season away from professional scrutiny and taking an elongated walk on Penarth promenade, notwithstanding.
Back to the point, imagine the pathway extended from its present mark to a player’s retirement; imagine players making their way through that pathway, of representing ‘their Region’ – those players representing supporters every time they take the field. Imagine them appealing to the history and exploits of our ancestors from east Glamorgan, of Dyfed, West Glamorgan and Cardiff, of Clwyd, Gwynedd and Monmouthshire. Crowds will swarm to the grounds, eager to bathe in the warmth that this representation offers, ‘my team’ taken to its next illogical, meaningless and frankly ridiculous plan.
Imagine the furore of a player wishing to play for Blues despite being born in Haverfordwest, families split asunder, Brexit-like, by disregard, by the absence of affinity. "Selfish boy, can’t he see all that the Scarlet Ospreys have provided for him? Does he not see that the pathway is vertical and not horizontal? Does he not recognise that his place in the professional ranks is at the expense of other professional players born outside the geographical zone, even outside of Wales?" A marquee signing to become as rare as contentious free refereeing performance in the Pro14.
The cosy idea that all of this will drive standards up, drive excellence to an even more exquisite arrowhead and ensure Wales beat New Zealand for once is charming and one for the storybook of faux Welshness – yes that most Welsh of things, ‘calon’ – no-one else possesses it you understand. Accepting that possessing it, showing it and using it are all part of performance, calon is actually one of the more romantic things to possess, when trying to embed excellence and ensure standards are put in place.
Whenever Wales do beat New Zealand it is probable that calon will be evident, but it won’t be the primary or even a secondary reason for victory. Here we see that it isn’t about standards; it is about wanting something that someone else has got. Richard Dawkins in The Selfish Gene suggested, ‘No doubt some of your cousins and great-uncles died in childhood, but not a single one of your ancestors did. Ancestors just don't die young!’ That seems to be a perfect riposte to the cry of ‘What about me?’
A more striking image of this idea of representation is that it places the supporter above the player in importance in the sport. There has never been a supporter pathway in Wales, how could there be, why should there be? Taking Swansea and Cardiff clubs as an example, their support has historically and without fuss been drawn from all over Wales, heck all over Britain and whisper this, the world. Cross pollination being as common as a wet Tuesday evening in Rumney. Of course, it is not just Swansea and Cardiff. Growing up in West Wales, a contemporary supported Newbridge, why? Because the kit appealed! It is simply unfathomable that support be drawn from, confined by and developed solely in one geographical area.
The argument that representation is the fundamental element missing in the professional game in Wales is as amusing as it is misplaced incoherent nonsense. What is meant by representation in our rugby environment? In a country the size of Wales, in this arena of professional rugby the only entity that can come close to representation is the Wales team. That representation is important is often highlighted by those who feel they are missing out or that they cannot support one of the current professional sides. Again, it is worth highlighting that all of this is a matter of choice. We all choose, whether to watch, to support, not to watch, not to support; choice is at the forefront of any decision in these things – it is probably worth reiterating that unless you have been banned from one of the home grounds any non-attendance is purely and rather obviously self-imposed.
Perhaps the most pernicious argument is when affinity, or lack of, is used to berate one of the existing professional teams. Now the free admittance: I am at a loss as to why affinity is given such prominence in the argument. Affinity offers little value beyond an immediacy of feeling better about things. Support for teams is not a natural right, but often fans identify with elements deemed important enough to ensure support continues (success is a good start) Sometimes it is passed onto the generation below (revenge for the 4am feeds, the past midnight taxi runs maybe).
Affinity is ‘a natural liking or understanding for something’; by taking a geographical approach to professional rugby, it is difficult to see where any natural liking will come from given that, in the main, most of us are from somewhere else. Affinity fighting the forces of globalisation, Naomi Klein and Milton Freidman going toe to toe on the terraces of Wales. One word: shudder. Of course the more important qualities that any professional set-up can possess is not affinity or identity, but the ability to survive, to pay its way, to seek new avenues of revenue, to ensure there is a tomorrow. History teaches us we never learn from the past, it should also teach us that by securing tomorrow today, it is possible for the other pieces of the jigsaw to fit into place.
When seen in the cold light of day it seems affinity really is a triangle, sided by bitterness, lunacy and misunderstanding, all underpinned by the absence of a business plan and a failure to understand the economic basis of professional sport. It is as bitter as it is balderdash. Sorry if you do not like.
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