Wales' captain Sam Warburton leaves the field with a blood
injury during the test against Argentina at the Millennium
Stadium in Cardiff at the weekend. REUTERS/Rebecca Naden
Bob Norster has seen plenty of "Welsh rugby in crisis"
headlines during his decades as a player, manager and
administrator but the former Lions lock says the current
situation needs urgent attention to prevent lasting and
At first glance things might look rosy as Wales have won
three Six Nations Grand Slams in eight years, reached the
World Cup semi-finals 13 months ago playing an exciting brand
of rugby and have a union that recently announced a record
turnover of 63 million pounds.
However, behind that shiny edifice the game in the
principality is crumbling, with a top-level player exodus, a
"financially unsustainable" and poorly performing regional
structure and an erosion of grass-roots interest that
seriously threatens a sport which once prided itself on being
the binding glue of the nation.
"The national game is on a high but domestically we are
really floundering," Norster told Reuters in an interview at
the Rugby Expo at Twickenham on Wednesday.
"We urgently need to find a better balance between our
national game and the domestic front which is struggling for
its very survival. The national team will always be the cash
cow but in some ways we've become a group of functional
chimneys trying to do our own thing. We need a complete
Norster's comments come in the wake of a report by Price
Waterhouse Cooper released last week that painted a damning
picture of the sport in Wales and said the current system of
four regional teams "is not sustainable without continued
additional funding from benefactors or alternative funding
PWC said the global economic downturn had hit the regions
hard but also said that poor management of the Newport Gwent
Dragons, Cardiff Blues, Scarlets and Ospreys and the
country's history of political infighting was harming their
chances of progress.
The report's conclusions came as no surprise to Norster, who
has been closely involved with Welsh rugby all his life. A
former Wales captain with 34 caps in the 1980s plus another
three for the British and Irish Lions, Norster was Wales team
manager for four years and spent another 10 as CEO of
Cardiff, latterly the Cardiff Blues.
Now working for Engagesport LLP on the business side of the
sport, Norster says everyone involved needs to overcome
decades of enmity and work together.
"The game is rife with politics and always has been," he
said. "We are somewhat tribal and parochial in Wales but we
have got into a position that we need to rectify.
"The self-imposed salary cap might have stopped us
haemorrhaging funds but it also makes the teams
"However, it's not just a straight question of resources as
there is no point throwing extra money at an environment that
isn't geared to do anything other than spend it on larger
more expensive squads.
"We need an executive board with an independent chair. The
idea of a union of clubs is a bit antiquated but it still has
a power to it and to be answerable to 250 or 300 clubs has a
certain honesty. But I think the time has come to separate
the sharp end of the professional game and the constitutional
"Maybe we can achieve that but we need to do it without
throwing the baby out with the bathwater by alienating the
grass roots of the game."
Welsh fans have never really taken to the artificially
created regions foisted upon them nine years ago as in some
cases clubs with a century of rivalry were effectively
Those new teams have struggled to compete with the Irish
regions, who in contrast have been operating since the 19th
century and attract a fiercely loyal following, or the French
and English clubs.
Somehow, despite those problems, the national team has
enjoyed a boom period but, with the added threat of a growing
soccer presence in the country, the signs are ominous.
"With Swansea into the Premier League and Cardiff getting
close, our two biggest cities, that puts even greater squeeze
on our youngsters," said 55-year-old Norster.
"We've also seen too many top players go overseas and there
are a lot more under pressure to join them. I don't think
we'll ever stop the top slice going to places like the south
of France but it's when you start to lose a generation of
players, and a young generation, that we will be in trouble.
"We have always had kids living the dream of playing rugby
for Wales and we've had some great role models," he said.
"But we need to work very hard to ensure that continues and
that means everybody recognising there is a problem - a
problem that will eventually impact massively on all aspects
of the game - and working together to solve it."