Rhys Priestland wondering where his future lies
Scarlets’ outhalf says ‘it’s disappointing that no one seems to get along’ in Welsh rugby
Wales outhalf Rhys Priestland: ‘It’s hard for players coming out of contract because you don’t know what you’re committing to.’ Photograph: Stu Forster/Getty Images
On the approach road into Parc y Scarlets, a maintenance man is hoovering the last few dead autumn leaves off the trees. Outside the main entrance stands an evocative sculpture of the great Ray Gravell defiantly handing off an invisible opponent. Both are metaphors for the blast of financial and personnel problems threatening Welsh domestic rugby. No wonder Rhys Priestland, the Scarlets’ international outhalf, is sitting inside wondering where his future lies.
Such is life as professional rugby’s dark forces thunder across small-town west Wales.
The Scarlets host the mighty Clermont Auvergne this afternoon but their smart modern stadium, as usual, will be far from full. At least those who show up can expect a competitive match: next season, if the Welsh Rugby Union and their regions remain at loggerheads, there will be barely any marketable stars left, even if the Heineken Cup is salvaged.
Will there be an expanded 16-team Anglo-Welsh Premiership? Hastily-constructed union-run franchises based in Neath, Pontypridd and north Wales? No one knows, least of all anyone in the dressing-rooms.
“It’s hard for players coming out of contract because you don’t know what you’re committing to,” says a sighing Priestland, among the few prepared to talk freely about an increasingly worrying situation.
“At the moment in Wales it feels like everyone’s at polar opposites. There’s talk of the regions disbanding or the Welsh Rugby Union not funding them. It’s disappointing that no one seems to get along.”
For someone such as Priestland, the dilemma is stark. Wales have won the last two Six Nations titles but their top players are now emigrating in droves. Already George North, James Hook, Dan Lydiate, Mike Phillips, Jamie Roberts, Lee Byrne, Luke Charteris, Gavin Henson and Paul James are based outside Wales. Jonathan Davies has signed for Clermont next season, Ian Evans is off to Toulon, Richard Hibbard is Gloucester-bound. Most expect Leigh Halfpenny and Sam Warburton to depart as well. The regions have been begging for more money to staunch the bleeding but events are outpacing them.
And Priestland? Reports suggest the 26-year-old is heading for either Wasps or Leicester. The truth is more prosaic: he has not yet signed for anyone: “I try not to think about it. You reach a point where you have to start making decisions but I just keep ignoring their calls.” The Scarlets are still hoping to keep him, not least to encourage others to stick around.
“He’s hugely important to the region and what we’re trying to do here,” admits Simon Easterby, the Scarlets’ head coach. “If he stays – and hopefully he will – others will see that as a positive. You can’t keep churning out talented young players and then losing them before we see the best of them.”
Easterby’s concern is understandable. What will the future look like if the local kids have nobody of the calibre of Priestland, Davies, Scott Williams and North to gawp at? Their heroes might still be available to represent Wales but the local umbilical cord will fray. Swansea and Cardiff are playing Premier League football nowadays and local spectating habits are increasingly fickle.
All this could easily impact on the Six Nations. If Wales opt for a desperate liaison with the English, what happens to their neighbours? Were the RaboDirect Pro12 to collapse, the Scots, Irish and Italians would have no-one else to play and their best players would need to seek a living elsewhere. In effect we have been dragged back to the dawn of professionalism.