Welsh players face club versus country dilemma
Regions are angered by union’s plans to offer centralised contracts in bid to keep top players from moving abroad
In demand: Cardiff’s Leigh Halfpenny (right) is reportedly a target for Toulon. Photograph: Ben Evans/Inpho
The battle between the Welsh Rugby Union and its four regions could see leading players, who are coming out of contract at the end of the season - Sam Warburton, Leigh Halfpenny and Alun Wyn Jones - having to choose between club and country by the end of the week.
The WRU will today submit revised terms for the participation agreement the regions rejected last week. The regions said they were not prepared to continue with it after the end of the season because it would potentially leave them worse off financially, so provision for central contracts for Wales squad players is expected to be among the changes.
Six of the Wales squad are out of contract with their regions in the summer: Warburton and Halfpenny at Cardiff Blues, Wyn Jones and Adam Jones at Ospreys and Scott Williams and Rhys Priestland - a target of Wasps - at the Scarlets.
Most have been offered unconditional deals by their regions, despite the uncertainty over what competitions they will be playing in next season, but they fear they are competing with their own union. The WRU is understood to be ready to offer better terms in some cases, aiming to recoup some of the outlay by sub-contracting the players to the regions or clubs in England for part of the season.
Halfpenny would command the biggest salary, around €360,000 a year, but he has been linked with a move to Toulon which would be worth some €500,000 a year after tax. The French club were expected to make an announcement this week, but talks have stalled with Jonny Wilkinson considering staying on with the Heineken Cup holders for another year.
Warburton, the Wales and Lions captain, has expressed his desire to remain in Wales and signing him centrally would be a coup for the WRU in what has become a bitter dispute with the regions who will consider reporting the union to the International Rugby Board if they find that any of their players have been approached without their written permission, which is required under the regulations.
Hiring players out would be difficult for the WRU. The regions have a joint agreement not to play anyone who has a central contract while Premiership Rugby’s policy would prevent its members from taking on anyone employed by a third party.
“I am appalled the WRU is even considering such a thing,” said Peter Thomas, the chairman of Cardiff Blues. “We have no appetite to continue working with Roger Lewis [the WRU chief executive]: he wants to take complete control and we have no confidence in him. He has picked a fight with the wrong guys.”
The WRU sent a letter to all its 320 member clubs at the end of last week outlining its position with the regions, pointing out that Test rugby was the game’s economic driver, that it remained committed to the European Cup as it was currently run and it would not agree to any of its teams playing in unsanctioned tournaments, not least because they would threaten the future of the Six Nations.
The regions support Premiership Rugby in wanting a Rugby Champions Cup set up next season. If the Heineken Cup remains under the auspices of European Rugby Cup Ltd (ERC), the sides from Wales and England will refuse to take part and set up a 16-team Anglo-Welsh league.
“An RCC would provide Wales with an extra £12m over three years and increase funding to Ireland and Scotland, ” said the regions in a statement. “It would not threaten the Six Nations or bring about its demise.”