Wales seek solution to player drain

  • By: Andrew Baldock, Press Association Sport Rugby Union Correspondent
  • Last Updated: April 4 2013, 15:41 BST

George North's probable departure from the Scarlets to Northampton this summer could prove a godsend for Welsh rugby.

George North: Set to sign for Northampton

It might not seem so at the moment. Realistically, how can it be when, as is confidently expected, a prodigiously-talented 20-year-old with designs on this summer's British and Irish Lions Test team heads out of the Principality?

North going east will cause an uproar in most parts of Wales, certainly among those supporters who look at it in basic terms of another high-profile international player departing the country.

It is not as if this is a rare event, after all.

Mike Phillips, James Hook, Lee Byrne, Luke Charteris and Gethin Jenkins already ply their trade in France, although Jenkins will return to Cardiff Blues next season, while Jamie Roberts and Dan Lydiate are both destined for wealthy Parisians Racing Metro.

Elsewhere, prop Paul James is a key member of the squad at Aviva Premiership club Bath, and now juggernaut wing North looks set to follow him by rumbling across the Severn Bridge.

According to reports, North has secured a three-year deal at Franklin's Gardens and the Scarlets will collect a £200,000-plus fee from Northampton as he prepares to leave Llanelli with 12 months of his existing contract remaining.

But rather than generating an outpouring of national mourning, maybe North's pending exit can be viewed as the catalyst for change.

Heaven knows, Welsh rugby needs to get its act together off the pitch. With the Welsh Rugby Union and Regional Rugby Wales - umbrella organisation for Wales' four professional regions - currently at loggerheads, it amounts to a depressing scenario.

Yes, Wales might have won the RBS 6 Nations title for a second successive season, but Welsh rugby's player drain shows no sign of abating, the regional game continues to struggle regarding attendance figures and finances are stretched to breaking point.

This weekend sees rugby union's agenda dominated by the Heineken Cup and Amlin Challenge Cup quarter-finals.

Wales does not have a representative left in either competition. So while the best of English, French and Irish fight it out, Wales are mere onlookers.

It is a desperate - and frankly, unacceptable - state of affairs, but until individual egos and collective posturing can be put to one side, nothing will change.

First things first, it is a case of getting WRU and RRW figureheads together, around a table and behind closed doors.

Statements and counter-statements of the type that bombarded news organisations earlier this week serve no purpose for the greater good.

Both the WRU and RRW will argue that they were merely outlining their respective stances with those press releases, yet all it served to do was display an unhealthy amount of dirty washing in public.

The latest WRU dispatch centred around an invitation to the four regions for a "summit meeting" at the Millennium Stadium to discuss a possible introduction of central player contracts.

It is something RRW has been vehemently opposed to, and it is difficult to envisage their position changing any time soon, yet surely the subject of central contracts must be worth debating.

"The WRU will table, in advance of the meeting, a range of detailed options to be discussed, in addition to those already proposed, so that the four regional organisations are fully prepared to take part in a meaningful debate," said the Union.

"The WRU would also welcome suggestions from the four regional organisations on how best a centrally-contracted player system would work to help safeguard Welsh rugby."

The regions, for instance, might be minded to listen to the wise words of former Wales coach Mike Ruddock.

Ruddock masterminded Wales' 2005 Six Nations and Grand Slam triumph and is now the Ireland Under-20 coach with considerable experience of working within the Irish Rugby Union's central contract framework.

"There is no reason why the model used here in Ireland couldn't be adopted elsewhere," Ruddock told the Western Mail this week.

"But there is no point in signing up the players before you centrally contract the coaches, the fitness conditioners and the rest of the management.

"If the coaches have a different paymaster you could end up with a situation where they wouldn't pick a player who the union have given a contract to and specifically want to play.

"The WRU would have to have control of who coaches and recruits the players at regional level. It and the regions would have to buy into such a model 100 per cent because, if you start having different interpretations, it will soon fall apart.

"Central contracts could be the answer for Wales but, as I said, everybody has to buy into it and the WRU must start by recruiting the coaches and giving those appointees the task of selecting the players they want to offer deals."

No, central contracts might not be everyone's cup of tea, but is there a serious alternative in Wales, a rugby country where international success is currently tainted by unrelenting domestic difficulties?

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