Theo Davies-Lewis and Cameron Petrie
It is almost impossible to discuss the story of Modern Wales without assessing the impact of rugby on nationhood and identity. The location of the Principality Stadium – sitting in the heart of our capital city – reminds us how central the game is to our national consciousness.
For decades, rugby has given Wales a place on the international stage and enabled our nation to stir up a banal Welsh nationalism, the force of which is normally felt by the English.
Although many contest the role of rugby in defining Welsh patriotism, the game is undoubtedly of critical importance to communities across Wales. Actually, it is more than a game; for the past century, young men and women have marvelled in participating in its spectacle – whether as a player or a spectator.
Compared to other sports, rugby transcends class and geography, and has the power to fundamentally change society – as South Africa first experienced with its Rainbow Nation of 1995.
For Wales, a country so obsessed with the red jersey, the advent of the professional era has not brought unrivalled success for rugby. Of course, the Gatland years brought accolades to our national team, yet our regional clubs remain to be on shaky financial ground and in almost constant speculation over further mergers.
The strength of English and French leagues – in terms of finances and quality of rugby – adds further to the pressure on retaining talent and investment in our game.
But these problems seem small when weighed up against the impact of coronavirus. Gareth Davies, the Chairman of the Welsh Rugby Union, said last month that the governing body was seeking a loan of around £20m to help cope with the pandemic’s impact.
More recently, the WRU announced yesterday that it was suspending the Wales Sevens men’s team for the “foreseeable future”.
For any member of the rugby community, this should set alarm bells ringing.
It isn’t just because the sevens programme has produced some of the best rugby union talent in Wales. The decision shows the severity of the situation our sport finds itself in. There is real concern over the sustainability of the game, even when the restricted return of regional rugby offers some hope. Now, more than ever, Welsh rugby finds itself in a fight for survival.
This seems even crueller considering the role rugby has played in combatting the pandemic. Parc Y Scarlets, the home of our local club, offered up its facilities to prepare for the worst of coronavirus. The Principality Stadium also became the Dragon’s Heart Hospital.
It has been a fantastic partnership: the NHS and rugby, two institutions that encapsulate so much about the history and culture of Wales, coming together to support the needs of the public when it matters most.
So much focus on the pandemic’s financial impact has been whether companies deserve government support when they ask for it. It is clear that Welsh rugby, more specifically the WRU, have gone above and beyond when asked to play a role in the public health response of this crisis.
As such, our devolved government should not just help Welsh rugby and the WRU because the sport is an incredibly important institution, but because it has earned the right to be supported when itself asks for help.
But short-term financial deals only go so far. In the long-term, the game needs a broader re-think of its strategy in the digital age, and how to proactively shape its future. In short, rugby must evolve into a sport fit for the twenty-first century.
That’s why we established Innovate Rugby, a Welsh-driven campaign calling on the global governance body, World Rugby, to form an Innovation Board to help the game prepare for its future during and after the coronavirus crisis.
Made up of young members across the globe, the proposal has the potential to help guide the game’s decision-makers in utilising new marketing techniques, promoting the Women’s game, and making sure rugby is a global sport that still supports its grassroots communities.
All of these are critical for developing the game whilst boosting its finances, something that is evidently badly needed today. Such an initiative won’t solve all the problems of the sport – but it would go a long way to inspire confidence in the future of the game.
So while rugby is a fundamental to the Welsh nation, it is now facing the global challenges of the pandemic.
In the short term, the WRU should be supported by government, but for the years to come it should prepare to modernise its financial and creative strategy. It has already shown signs of doing so compared to other unions, especially with the creation of its Youth Board in 2016 – which was established to tackle the big issues affecting Welsh rugby.
In the years to come, it is even more important that Welsh rugby puts the ball in the hands of the people which matters most: the next generation.