I was born in Sweden but have now lived in Wales for around 7 years. Football was the sport with which I grew up and that which I played for many a year. However, moving to South Wales, I couldn’t avoid Rugby Union, it was everywhere.I started off by watching Wales and was soon interested in regional rugby. The Ospreys are now my team and I get as much pleasure going to watch them at the Liberty Stadium as I did watching my local ice hockey or football team back home in younger days. I love match days at the Liberty and Millennium Stadiums, the expectations before a game, as well as the atmosphere around and in the stadium. I came late to rugby and still have much to learn, so love every minute of it. When it comes to rugby I am Welsh – if Wales played Sweden in rugby (highly unlikely!), I would support Wales.Over recent years, we have all heard the rumours about players being offered highly lucrative contracts to ply their trade in France. Last year saw James Hook, Lee Byrne and Gavin Henson sign contracts with French teams (though Henson returned). Regan King is another player who left Wales after 6 years for what I would assume to be a more financially rewarding contract than that on offer from Scarlets? This year we know that Luke Charteris is on his way. Aled Brew is also on the rumour list as well as a few others. Adam Jones has gone against the grain and decided to stay with the Ospreys.Do I mind? No, not really. I can understand that from the player’s personal point of view that it makes sense. I would even go as far as saying that it could be beneficial for the national team of Wales, at least in the short-term. My views on this issue are based on experiences in Sweden, a relatively small country with 9 million inhabitants. This makes it bigger than Wales with its 3 million inhabitants, but still not large by any standards.
Swedish football clubs could never compete with the big European clubs for the best Swedish football players. They leave to further themselves both professionally and financially. This has long been the case. It started in the 1950′s with the well know trio of Gre-No -Li (Gunnar Gren, Gunnar Nordahl and Nils Liedholm) all of whom went to ACMilan.
Other well known players have left Sweden with prominent names including Glenn Strömberg, Glenn Hysen, Tomas Brolin, Fredrik Ljungberg, Henrik Larsson, Patrik Andersson, Olof Mellberg and, of course, Zlatan Ibrahimovic. Sometimes when the Swedish national team plays, there are no players on the pitch who currently play in Sweden. Still, in 1994 Sweden came third in the World Cup, so success can come even in these circumstances.The fact that the best Swedish players leave is something we accept and live with. In many ways it probably improves the quality of Swedish football as many of these players return to Sweden either to end their playing careers or as managers, bringing with them experience and new ideas. This is why I say that Welsh rugby can benefit from players leaving for foreign climes and bringing new ideas and concepts to Wales.However, there is a major difference that must be accounted for. In Sweden, football has a sustainable base of players, in that there are around in total 200,000 registered players. There is no risk of shortage in the player pool. In Wales, however, there is a total of 50,557 registered rugby players, compared with England’s 2,549,196 or New Zealand’s 137,835, this despite being a country with a mere 4 million inhabitants.
Wales do not have a huge base of players with which to work, so the local clubs require all the help available to get young kids into the game and retained. This is why I say that the player exodus is good only in the short run. I have been to a presentation night with my little boy and seen what the presence of ‘big’ names can do for the younger players.I saw the happiness in my little boy’s eyes when he came to me shouting “Tommy Bowe is here!!” When prizes were handed out, there was a clear order in terms of whom the boys wanted to accept their prize from. Tommy Bowe first, Dan Biggar second and finally the local boy, Ben Lewis. Lewis, as a local youngster, has made it into the Ospreys squad, but in the eyes of the kids, that will never be the same as having played for Ireland, the Lions or Wales.I do think the Welsh Rugby Union need to think about their aspirations in the long run. Today, ‘Gatland’s law’, summarised by the quotes of the Welsh coach:-“The location of a player outside Wales will be a significant factor in determining whether he is selected for the national team.”“This is a common sense reminder to Welsh players that the ideal will be to play for a Welsh region.”“Playing for a region will allow them to be available for all Wales training and playing requirements and will safeguard their development and care.”“Given that we do not have the pool of players that other countries have, it is questionable whether we can say every player who plays outside Wales cannot play for Wales.”
In other words, it doesn’t stop the ‘big’ names from leaving Wales, they will be picked anyway. However it probably stops the rest if they want to play for Wales. As shown at the presentation night at my local rugby club it is the ‘big’ names that attract interest. Without players like James Hook and Lee Byrne playing in Wales where the younger generation has the chance to watch them on TV or live, I fear the absence of ‘heroes’ will make the situation for the local clubs much harder in terms of attracting new players.
In the long run I think it will be harder for Welsh rugby to keep a sustainable player base if the good players are free to leave without any repercussions, with others certain in the knowledge that a move will mean their no longer playing for Wales. I think that the WRU need to think long and hard about this. There are many other implications around this issue that impact the regions, not least the stance of Warren Gatland, but that’s for another day. This year has also seen an added condition with a salary cap put in place for the Welsh regions. The repercussions from this are yet to be seen.