Welsh Rugby Players Association says contract fears could spark player exodus

Dragons wing Ashton Hewitt is chairman of the Welsh Rugby Players Association
Dragons wing Ashton Hewitt is chairman of the Welsh Rugby Players Association’s executive committee

Welsh rugby’s professional players have warned a number of its members are “reluctantly seeking security elsewhere” amid ongoing uncertainty about the sport’s financial future.

The Welsh Rugby Union (WRU) has yet to agree future funding with leading teams Cardiff, Dragons, Ospreys and Scarlets.

That has led to a freeze on player contract negotiations.

“For the sanity and health of our members, the delay cannot go on any longer,” said the players’ union.

The Welsh Rugby Players Association (WRPA) has reacted within days of reports that Wales and Dragons lock Will Rowlands has committed his future to leading French club Racing 92.

During a social media exchange centred on Rowlands’ situation, WRU performance director Nigel Walker claimed the 31-year-old turned down a contract extension last summer, but confirmed there is a current freeze on contract signings and recruitment while the WRU and regions continue to negotiate the professional teams’ future finances.

In response to the WRPA statement, Walker said: “The WRU is acutely aware of current player anxiety and is working tirelessly to achieve a long term, sustainable solution alongside the regions, with all parties represented in ongoing Professional Rugby Board (PRB) discussions. We are optimistic a settlement is within our grasp.

“We understand how difficult it is for players and the regions during this period where contract negotiations are suspended due to the ongoing PRB discussions.

“Agreeing a new multi-year deal is absolutely vital for the long-term sustainability of professional rugby in Wales.

“Malcolm Wall [PRB’s independent chair] and I are meeting the WRPA on Wednesday to discuss how we can work together over the coming weeks to map out and implement an action plan which gives players certainty in as short a time-frame as possible.

“Market uncertainty is not confined to Wales and the WRU has already taken steps, and will continue to act, as it does everything within its power to prevent any repeat of scenarios elsewhere, outside of Wales, which have seen clubs suffer financial collapse.”

Cardiff coach Dai Young was also among those to express concern, saying more than 40% of his players are out of contract next summer.

The WRPA statement, released on Sunday, said: “Players are now reluctantly seeking security elsewhere by exploring opportunities outside of Wales and as a result, this week it was suggested that the first high-profile player has decided to move to France. Clearly this will have a detrimental effect on the domestic and international game in Wales.

“The ongoing delay however is having a detrimental effect on the wellbeing of players and potentially the performances across the regions.

“The players from all four regions are united in one voice to call for the immediate resolution to the impasse. Our members can’t continue to play with the fear of the unknown hanging over them.

“Several players are out of contract at the end of June 2023 and with an embargo on contract negotiations, these members are unable to discuss, let alone secure future employment beyond the next six months.

“Not knowing if they have a job and thus an income to pay mortgages and bills is a weighty situation to be carrying on a day-to-day basis, and on to the field.

“Players are struggling to remortgage or get new mortgages as banks require proof of earnings. With only six months remaining on contracts and no guarantee of employment thereafter, banks are simply refusing at present.”

Playing for a team outside Wales renders players ineligible to play for Wayne Pivac’s side unless they have won 60 caps or more, because of a rule created in 2017 called the Senior Player Selection Policy.

Dealings between the regions and the game’s governing body in Wales are conducted via the Professional Rugby Board (PRB), which has an independent chair in former Harlequins chairman Wall.

The PRB consists of the four regional representatives, Alun Jones (Cardiff Rugby), David Buttress (Dragons), Nick Garcia (Ospreys) and Simon Muderack (Scarlets), along with WRU CEO Steve Phillips, WRU finance director Tim Moss and two independent members, being Wall as chair and also Marianne Økland.

The PRB meetings are also attended by Walker and the chair of the rugby management board, Jon Daniels.

The WRPA statement added it has “been in regular communication with all key stakeholders around the current negotiations for a long-term finance model for the four regions”.

“We are in support of a long-term agreement, which will give stability and security to our members moving forward,” the players’ body added.

The statement continued: “Players are still taking the field every week exposing themselves to injury, which would leave them vulnerable come contract negotiations anywhere, let alone Wales.

“We’ve seen three high-profile players in the autumn fall victim to this, but it’s the ‘squad’ players who are leaving themselves wide open, as they won’t have the luxury of choice when it comes to clubs and wages moving forward.

“The financial crisis of rugby in Wales and England has been well publicised in recent months, and the speculation of salary and squad size reductions has only amplified the anxiety and concern amongst professional players.

“As an association, our role is to represent and support our members, with player welfare of utmost priority.

“Daily discussions on this matter are taking place in all four regions and as time goes on, we are becoming increasingly concerned for the welfare and mental wellbeing of our members.

“For the sanity and health of our members, the delay cannot go on any longer. An agreement needs to be concluded by the Union and four regions imminently.

“We have participated diligently in the process but the calls for patience must be replaced with action.

“The WRPA is a voice representing the main asset in the game, the player, and to ensure a united, long-term future, this voice must be listened to.”

Dragons wing Ashton Hewitt is WRPA executive committee chairman, which includes team-mate George Nott, Cardiff’s Lloyd Williams and Ellis Bevan, Dan Evans and Scott Baldwin of Ospreys, and Scarlets’ Rhys Patchell and Scott Williams.

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