As Welsh rugby continues to enjoy a promising period on the international stage, doubts persist about the future of the regional game following the introduction of a salary cap.
From the beginning of next season the four Welsh regions will each be permitted to spend a maximum of £3.5 million on the wages of Heineken Cup and Amlin Challenge Cup squad members in an attempt to prevent wage inflation at a time when attendances continue to fall.
With the Welsh cap lower than the English equivalent and only a little over half the figure allowed in France, the danger of the top Welsh players seeking moves abroad is an increasing concern. Lee Byrne, Mike Phillips and James Hook have already moved to French clubs, whilst Gethin Jenkins has agreed a move to Toulon for the new season. The prop is likely to be joined by fellow international forwards Luke Charteris and Huw Bennett in leaving Wales at the end of the season.
The career of a rugby player remains a short one and the potential to gain substantial wage increases in France seems likely to harm the strength of the Welsh regions. The ability of the current Welsh international squad, combined with the increased profile of the players on the world stage makes them an attractive prospect for French clubs and seems likely to take them out of the price range of the regional sides.
With the Welsh rugby system producing high-quality players on a consistent basis, there have also been concerns about the continued effectiveness of player development schemes as the financial stability of top clubs is questioned. However, the new budget does not affect development players or the amount that can be pumped into academy systems.
Regional Rugby Wales chairman Stuart Gallacher said: “One of the benefits of the salary cap I believe is that it gives us more scope and more finances within the regions to keep developing our own younger players as we saw in the World Cup”.
The salary cap will not hamper a region's chances of developing players with potential to play on the international stage, but problems will arise when a player's ability and worth takes them beyond the means of their Welsh club. If the best Welsh players continue to be snapped up by French clubs, there is a worry that the regions will essentially become feeder clubs, never seeing the full benefit of the money invested in players during their development.
The impact that this could have upon the future of Welsh rugby on an international level concerns hooker Matthew Rees. The Scarlets player said: “We've put the building blocks in place in terms of the international scene and Wales as a team. But that is only as strong as your regions are, and we've got to make sure that is sorted sooner rather than later”.
Whether the salary cap will affect Welsh rugby on the international stage will only be seen in the long-term, but the future of regional rugby appears bleak. With small attendances restricting the growth of regional rugby in comparison to the French equivalent, the salary cap appears to be a measure to assist financial stability rather than an attempt to compete with the rest of Europe.