5 Dec, 14:49
The Ireland Under-19 squad to face Australia Schools at Ravenhill on Saturday week (December 14) has been announced.
The first significant point to be made is that on Thursday night the WRU general committee, working on advice from the Union's Director of Rugby Terry Cobner and his department, agreed to reduce the Premier Division to six professional clubs as soon as legally practicable. The rugby reasons put forward by Terry Cobner for this move reducing our dependence on non-Welsh qualified players in our top division, concentrating our own best talent at our top clubs and creating a more competitive club structure to produce higher quality and better prepared international players - have been on the stocks for some time and have been raised in conversation with our Celtic cousins during discussions over European and Celtic League representation.
These plans have also gained the approval of our former coach, Graham Henry, and our current coach Steve Hansen. They see it as the best way forward for our national team as we seek to become more competitive on the world stage.
The vision for the future is that those six clubs will not only play in the Heineken Cup and Parker Pen Shield, but will help to form a Celtic Super 12 competition. They would also play in a domestic Premier Division as well as play in the Principality Cup.
However, while the group representing Rugby Partnership Wales wish to reduce to six clubs from next season, the Union has told them that it is impossible to jettison three teams for the 2002/2003 campaign.
The reasons are quite simple. Competition rules, issued at the start of the season and which are binding for clubs not only in the Premier Division, but also throughout the Welsh National League system, have been set for next season and should not be changed half-way through. And in the case of Ebbw Vale, who are members of the Premier Division, they contend the loyalty agreement they have signed compels the WRU to maintain at least eight clubs in the top division until 2007. All these points have been well documented and are understood by all parties.
It has been accepted by all sides that the selection of the six clubs to form a new professional elite in Wales will be based on criteria laid down by the WRU. All clubs in the Premier Division, and those ambitious clubs in the First Division, will be given an equal opportunity to put forward their claims for inclusion.
Beneath the top tier, the Union's recommendation is for a National First Division of 14 semi-professional clubs with the winner of the title playing off against the bottom team among the elite six on a home and away basis each year to try to reach the top flight.
In seeking to find the best way forward for the professional game in Wales, the general committee has studied the proposals from all sides and moved a long way towards finding a proper and lasting solution. However, the right route has to be found for the game as a whole in Wales, not merely the professional end.
The WRU wants the shop window of our game to be healthy, successful and inspirational. To that end, it has funded the grass roots of the game to produce international players both past and present.
The WRU is a Union of clubs, and the interests of the 233 clubs outside the top six have to be carefully considered. They all have a stake in the future of our national game, as do the 44,000 players at under 19 level in Wales who are such a vital and vibrant part of our game at the clubs and schools.
As regards funding, we have told all the clubs in the Premier Division there will be a ceiling figure of #8.1m available to the nine clubs in the 2002/2003 season. In addition, a limit of #1.25m will be made available for our international players. That is limit the game can afford.
But what is not up for discussion or review is who governs the game. The WRU, on behalf of its member clubs and the fans, will continue to be responsible for the international game.
While we are happy for the Joint Venture Company, proposed by the players and the clubs to run the professional game in conjunction with the WRU, to move the club game forward at the highest level, they have to understand that rights to international rugby belong to the game as a whole and cannot be hijacked.
The future development of the game is vested in the WRU, not in a small group of clubs. While we value and recognise the contributions made by the benefactors of many of the Premier Division clubs, it has to be said that the rights to more than 120 years of Welsh rugby are not for sale at any price.
While the 'owners' have exercised their rights to invest in clubs, the WRU has also played a big part in financing many of Premier Division clubs in troubled times.
In relation to the international players, I understand they will be meeting with representatives of their clubs on Sunday morning. I have asked those delegates of Rugby Partnership Wales with whom we met on Saturday to convey to the owners and the players the sincere wish and hope of the rugby public of Wales that they represent their country at Twickenham on Saturday.
In terms of assurances, I can tell them that the WRU is prepared to accept change and work with them to develop a stronger and more viable professional game in Wales. That is what we all want.
But whatever they decide to do, Wales will fulfil her fixture in the Six Nations Championship against England on Saturday. The games at A team and Under 21 levels will also be honoured.
If our captain Scott Quinnell and his players choose not to make themselves available for selection, then they will have to face the consequences of their actions.