Wales’ Guinness Six Nations clash against England remained under threat on Wednesday amid possible player strike action and planned crisis talks.
Three days before the scheduled kick-off in Cardiff, contractual chaos still held centre-stage as players gathered at Wales’ training base in the Vale of Glamorgan for a pivotal meeting with Professional Rugby Board members.
Every professional player in Wales rugby was invited to the mid-afternoon summit gathering.
Many of them are out of contract with their regional teams at the end of this season, but fresh deals cannot be offered in writing until a new six-year financial agreement between the Welsh Rugby Union and its four regions is confirmed, with no playing budgets currently finalised.
Wales players, meanwhile, want the contentious minimum 60-cap Test selection rule for players plying their trade outside the country to be scrapped, a voice at PRB meetings and review of proposed fixed variable contracts that see only 80 per cent of salary guaranteed, with the remaining 20 per comprising bonus-related payments.
It is thought that the 60-cap policy could have its threshold at least halved, while Welsh Rugby Players’ Association chief executive Gareth Lewis has now been invited to attend PRB meetings.
But the new contracts format remains the players’ major grievance, and could lead to the nightmare scenario of strike action unfolding.
— England Rugby (@EnglandRugby) February 20, 2023
That would inevitably mean Saturday’s game in Cardiff being called off – it is worth around £9million for the WRU – and possibly leading to sanctions from Six Nations chiefs.
Wales head coach Warren Gatland accepts that strike action is a “genuine threat”, but remained hopeful of agreement being reached as the clock ticks down.
The PRB, negotiators for the professional game’s future in Wales, met on Wednesday morning before heading into crunch discussions with players.
The group consists of a representative of each Welsh region – Cardiff, Dragons, Ospreys and Scarlets – acting WRU chief executive Nigel Walker, WRU finance director Tim Moss and two independent members in chair Malcolm Wall and Marianne Okland.
Gatland, meanwhile, delayed announcing his team to face England by 48 hours until Thursday, the same day as Steve Borthwick’s squad are due to travel to the Welsh capital.
But unless an agreement is reached between the PRB and players – and there will need to be compromise on both sides – then the fixture, a 74,500 sell-out with live BBC coverage, appears doomed.
Speaking on Tuesday, Gatland said: “It has been a bit of a challenge, but sometimes that galvanises people and brings them together.
“There has been a lot going on behind the scenes, and we are aware of that, but when it has come to training they (players) have applied themselves very well.
“I think the players were given assurances on a number of occasions it would be sorted out, and the unfortunate situation (is) that they haven’t been able to come to an agreement in terms of the PRB, Union and regions, and it finally came to a head.”