Wales avert Six Nations strike threat but players’ ‘win’ only papers over cracks tearing sport apart

Wales avert Six Nations strike threat but players’ ‘win’ only papers over cracks tearing sport apart

At the end of a show of strength, everyone looked weak. Wales’s players mobilised, threatened to strike, then held their ground against an embattled governing body to claim victory. And yet it all seemed so pyrrhic.

A chastened Nigel Walker and a frustrated, embarrassed Ken Owens stood outside The Vale Resort and aired Wales’s dirty laundry. The ‘suit’ and the ‘shop-floor steward’, in just about as awkward a juxtaposition as possible.

Hands on hips, red-faced captain Owens branded Wales the “laughing stock” of the rugby world. Interim Wales Rugby Union chief executive Walker had no argument, and after 10 days of civil war, at least a resolution had been reached to ensure that the country’s Six Nations show will go on.

At tea time on Wednesday night, Walker and Owens confirmed that the WRU had brokered a deal with the Wales players for Saturday’s Cardiff clash against England to go ahead as scheduled.

The Wales players should have been relaxing on their day off. Instead, they spent hours in crisis meetings with WRU chiefs and player representatives. The players’ top demand was risibly reasonable: that the WRU lift the freeze on agreeing new contracts for next season.

The WRU and the four Welsh regions are months behind schedule on agreeing the details in a six-year deal for squad funding. Some 90 players remain out of contract this summer, with careers in complete limbo. Such renewal work should have been completed well before the end of 2022.

Suddenly, the Welsh Union can pledge to lift that contract freeze next week. Funny what a bit of good, old-fashioned brinkmanship can achieve. Wales’s players wanted the 60-cap minimum Test selection criteria for overseas-based players to be scrapped.

The haggling in Hensol on Wednesday saw that limit whittled down to 25 caps. Wales can expect more players to head overseas and continue their Test careers now. Given the impecunious WRU’s fiscal ill health, no one in power in Wales can argue there, either.

The Union have made concessions on the make-up of the new player contracts, while the Welsh Rugby Players’ Association will take a seat in the WRU’s Professional Rugby Board meetings.

While the WRU have given ground, it is important to remember that all professional players in Wales are heading for pay cuts. Wales’s senior Test stars will be insulated from the toughest of the blows here, but their threats to strike were carried out in solidarity to junior and fringe regional players for whom the wage reductions will carry real bite.

The players’ position has been creditable. That the threat of losing £10million matchday revenue was required to force the Union’s hand only serves to underscore the miserable state of rugby governance across the Severn Bridge.

A Union already cripped by Covid debt and hit with a sexism and misogyny scandal only last month would have done well to order at least one room in its dilapidated house. The end of the strike threat must also herald the beginning of a new era.

Nothing but progressive, inclusive, equitable and diverse governance will now suffice. As expectations go, this is a staggeringly low bar. The Welsh game needs new private investment. High-profile individuals or organisations will not align with toxicity.

If human capital does not carry enough currency to affect such change, surely actual money must now talk. The alternative to such an overhaul is simple: a managed decline of Wales’s beloved game.

Wales’s players went off-message and off the reservation to put their bosses on notice. Now they have two days’ training left to sharpen up before facing their old enemy, England.

Wales have not lost their three opening Six Nations matches since 2007, but hefty defeats by Ireland and Scotland raise that distinct possibility.

Saturday’s match will, as always, be some spectacle — and yet no amount of entertainment can shift the parlous state of Welsh rugby from under the microscope.