Off the field things are if anything even more dire. PriceWaterhouseCoopers produced a report on regional rugby last year, and if the BBC's summary of its contents is anything to go by, regional rugby is facing a grim future indeed.
Here are a few of the report's findings just for starters:
- The regions are not financially sustainable in their current form without continued support from benefactors or alternative funding sources.
- The collective funding gap has been rising.
- The economic downturn and growing disillusionment have meant that most, and in some cases all, of the support provided by wealthy benefactors is drying up.
- Poor management and poor decision making, partly because of the over-riding influence of the benefactors.
- Lack of oversight of finances and, in some cases, lack of an up to date business plan.
- Signing expensive overseas players.
- Significant additional costs incurred by the lure of participating in the Heineken Cup.
The report also diplomatically described the Welsh clubs' targets as "ambitious" when set against past performance.
Not included in the PWC report's deliberations, it seems, was the effect which the growing success and popularity of Welsh football is having on regional rugby match attendances, something discussed on the BBC's Sport Wales the other week. Tickets to watch Swansea City are like gold dust, and attendances in Swansea and Cardiff are running at more than three times what the regional rugby clubs can pull in.
The response of the WRU and the rugby regions to all of this has been to set up a new board which will meet once a month to try to turn the Titanic round.
In Carmarthenshire it's not just club supporters who have reason to feel depressed. As we wait to find out how much extra we will have to pay in council tax this year, the County Council's financial support for the Scarlets is beginning to stand out more and more like a sore thumb as jobs are cut and services slashed.
It is well nigh impossible to work out how much all of the overt and covert subsidies to the club add up to. Just about every council event, no matter how small, is likely to find itself taking place at Parc y Scarlets, with stretched departmental budgets being raided to pay for hospitality in Llanelli. Even the annual "Welsh Learner of the Year" event (maximum of about 30 attendees) was held at the stadium last year at a time when the council was cutting back on classes.
The question of whether all these subsidies are legal under EU Competition Law appears to be a very touchy subject in County Hall.
The Chief Executive of Carmarthenshire County Council, Mark James, told councillors that legal advice on state-funded aid to the Scarlets was contained in the huge bundle of documents they were given back in 2007, but a Freedom of Information request recently made by Cllr Siân Caiach for disclosure of the legal advice was refused under the cloak of legal privilege.
Cllr Caiach wonders why, if the advice provided by an external firm of lawyers showed that everything was in order, would there be any need to conceal it from elected councillors. Could it be that the advice highlighted concerns which the council's officers have not dealt with?
Not unnaturally, Cllr Caiach also wonders whether councillors were ever actually provided with the external legal advice given the authority's refusal to disclose it now.
Sometimes it doesn't just rain, it pours.
This is surely misuse of the legal privilege exemption, there is no reason whatsoever why reassurance that EU State Aid rules hadn't been breached could not be released. Unless of course there was no such reassurance...
Why is it only Cllr Caiach asking questions? Have the others gone to sleep?
I suspect that Sian Caiach speaks out because she is the only councillor who is not afraid of losing the "rugby vote".
Meryl Gravelle said the last time that the Scarlets formally went to CCC with their begging bowl that "we must protect our investment". Confirmation that CCC will continue to fund the Scarlets whatever it costs.
What she really meant of course was that they need to keep funding to protect the image of those senior officers and exec board members that pushed this unsustainable development through.
Golly - who saw this coming? Can we start a list? Here are the ones I know of to get started: (1) The Stradey Residents Action Group (2) Carmarthenshire Ratepayers' Association (3)Those councillors at the meeting on 14th November 2007 who dared to ask questions (promptly silenced by the Chief Executive and the Leader - I know, I was there) (4)Maybe the councillors who didn't attend? You can be very sure a large number, if not all of, the council's own officers, particularly those in the finance and recreational departments, recognised the insanity of the council's investment. What a dilemma! Speak up and prove yourself an employee of integrity, financially astute, and therefore WORTHY of your job, or keep shtum and at least know you'll KEEP your job. Further point - where were the Wales Audit Office in all of this? Well, we know what Mr Colman was doing with his time, don't we? I believe he is still in prison for possession of indecent images.
For what it's worth . . . when 'regional' rugby was first mooted in 2002 (I believe) by David Moffett, then Group Chief Executive of the WRU, his plan was for four regions.
These were North (self-explanatory); East (Gwent); South (Mid and South Glamorgan); and West (West Glam, south west). Which means that the original plan was for Llanelli to link with Swansea and Neath. As Swansea was central, home games would obviously have been played there.
As we know, Llanelli, along with Cardiff and Newport, refused to accept regional rugby and insisted on 'stand-alone' or 'superclub' status. The WRU caved in.
So I often wonder if Parc y Scarlets wasn't pushed through by club and council to thwart such a merger (and a possible future merger), using the arguments of 'profile' and 'exposure', even though it was known that the economic case for a new stadium was weak.
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