On the day that Gavin Henson signed for London Welsh, his fifth club in less than two years, the financial dark cloud looming over Welsh rugby grew darker. The auditor examining the accounts of Newport Gwent Dragons, one of four regions in the country, questioned how longer they would remain a going concern.
The Dragons posted losses of more than £270,000, taking their total debt to £2.3m. With the other three regions owing more than £6m between them, and Ospreys looking to reach agreement with the tax authorities, the challenging economics of the professional game in Wales contrasts with the success enjoyed by the national side in the last year.
Wales is one of the few countries in the world that can claim rugby union as its national sport, although its impact is muted in the north of the country, but the years since the dawn of professionalism have been a constant struggle.
The club system, which saw names like Cardiff, Newport, Swansea and Llanelli, which had down the years entertained major touring teams, latterly enjoying more success than the national side, was turned into a regional one in 2003 under the urging of the Welsh Rugby Union’s then chief executive, David Moffett.
Five teams became four after a year and while Ospreys have been successful in the Celtic League, winning it for the fourth time last May, but none of the regions has made a telling impact on the Heineken Cup, the vehicle used by the leading Irish provinces to grow their crowd bases over the last 15 years.
None of the Welsh regions can break through the five-figure attendance average and with the economic recession biting, they have all been forced to not just trim their playing squads but release some of the highest earners as a prelude to a self-imposed salary cap of £3.5m next season.
The four have been talking with the Welsh Rugby Union for the last two months about the contents of an independent report from a consultancy firm about the financial state of the game in Wales. The findings have not been made public and the WRU did not rule out, before the meetings began, one of the regions folding.
A likely upshot is that the leading players in Wales will be put on central contracts, taking them off the regional wage bill. The ideal number would be 30, but that may be more than the WRU can reasonably afford and its stance throughout the talks is that it will not assume any of the regions’ debts.
Central contracts may have kept Henson in Wales, even allowing for his dismissal by Cardiff Blues last April for drunken behaviour on a flight from Scotland. He may have struggled to stay anywhere for very long since leaving Ospreys for Saracens towards the end of 2010, but there have been no complaints about his motivation or behaviour during the time he has spent with Wales under Warren Gatland.
Henson was left out of Wales’s squad for Australia because his dismissal by the Blues had left him without a team to play for. At 30, he should be at his peak, but he has played fewer than 20 games in the last 40 months and while London Welsh would not have been the club of his choice, newly promoted to the Premiership and likely to be involved in a relegation scrap, he needs to play regularly if he is to have any hope of adding to his 33 Wales caps and, whisper it quietly, be in contention for the Lions.
Gatland will be the Lions’ head coach of the Lions in Australia next year, one of the few men who has been able to manage Henson over the years and assimilate a natural outsider into a squad.
The Lions will need what Henson brings, creativity and craft in the midfield. Last year’s Six Nations, missing Brian O’Driscoll, was short on inspiration and next year’s series will not be won by brute force. Henson sharpens any cutting edge.
Should the WRU introduce central contracts, Gatland will be able to base his leading players in Wales with several currently based in France and England, having fled from the financial crisis, but no one would be in a rush to recruit, or be lumbered with, Henson.
It may be stretching it to say that a player who has been so little on a rugby field since the 2009 Six Nations will make the difference as Wales look to break into the top three of the world rankings and challenge the supremacy of the Sanzar nations, but Henson’s qualities as a player are what they need, as the tour to Australia showed.