Inflamed by social media, this is as vitriolic a stand-off as I’ve ever experienced
Covering Welsh rugby for a living, you get used to political rows, some of them particularly bitter.
But in 20-plus years in the job, this is the bitterest, most acrimonious dispute I have ever experienced.
The European row which wore on for virtually the whole of last season was bad enough.
That got extremely unsavoury at times, with plenty of heated words being exchanged along the way.
But, if anything, this ongoing domestic dispute within Welsh rugby is even more vitriolic and barbed.
Itâs been going on for the best part of a year and yet, as I write this now, the two sides seem further apart than ever before.
The vocabularly said it all, with phrases likes âindescribably tortuousâ, âcompletely unacceptableâ, âone step forward, two steps backâ and âstark practical consequencesâ being used by RRW, and the WRU responding by declaring they were âsaddened and surprisedâ by the âextremely unhelpfulâ and âemotionallly chargedâ comments from the regions.
And all of this after it seemed we might actually be getting somewhere and be on the verge of a peace deal. I have to admit my own optimism proved misfounded.
So now we seem back to square one, amid stalemate, with just six weeks to go to the start of the new season.
Itâs all pretty depressing and all pretty unedifying.
Of course, Iâve known plenty of wars of words in the past, but this latest dispute is different because of the dimension of social media.
Itâs there, most notably on Twitter, that things have become particularly acrimonious, with supporters and opponents of both sides really letting the vitriol pour out.
Iâve found myself caught up in the middle of this on numerous occasions, fielding the flak. The approach some people take is âif you are not with us you are against usâ and that inevitably means you are going to take stick from both sides if you try and plough an impartial path down the middle.
Thatâs fine because it goes with the territory, but it does illustrate just how high passions are running in this whole affair.
For many people, of course, the whole political dispute is a big turn-off. They have had a gutsful of it and they just want it sorted so we can get on with the rugby.
The kind of comment you often hear is that we should just lock the two sides in a room until they come up with a solution.
Well, it might work, but the signs donât look too promising at the moment.
How has it come to this?
It is worth just trying to explain once again how we have reached this point, because the detail and chronology may be confusing to some.
Essentially, the dispute centres around the working agreement between the two bodies.
The regions made it clear before Christmas they would not be signing up to extend the Participation Agreement with the Union, which was due to run out on June 30.
Their argument was that the money they received from the Union in return for issues such as international player release and observing overseas quotas – some Â£1.7m each – hadnât kept pace with spiralling player wages.
They felt it was insufficient to enable them to hold on to their star turns and left them unable to be competitive in Europe and the Pro12.
So they refused to extend the PA by the deadline of December 31 last year.
A few days later, January 6 to be presice, the WRU proposed a new Rugby Services Agreement.
Discussions and negotiations over that document have been going on for the past seven months, with various meetings taking place and phonecalls and emails going back and fore.
Of course, during that period, things went off at a tangent for a while with the arrival back on the scene of former WRU chief executive David Moffett.
He returned with a manifesto for the future, bidding to become chairman and forced the Union to hold an EGM where a vote of no confidence in the board was overwhelmingly rejected on June 15.
Once he headed back to New Zealand, the focus switched back firmly to the quest for a domestic peace deal and it did seem that progress was being made in recent weeks.
Wales coach Warren Gatland became involved in the meetings and the whispers were that things were moving on encouragingly.
I was hearing suggestions that agreement had been reached in principle over funding and that it was a question of sorting out the fine detail of the peace deal.
So how did we get back to deadlock?
Well, as I understand it, the sequence of events was as follows.
On July 3, RRW sent the WRU a mark-up – or version – of the RSA, which they were prepared to sign up to.
On July 11 – last Thursday – the Union sent back their own mark-up of the agreement.
Then, the following day, RRW issued their press release, referring to âcompletely unacceptableâ conditions being demanded by the Union, who in turn responded with their statement.
Over the weekend, a letter signed by the four regional chairmen – dated July 6 – entered the public domain.
That outlined in detail their concerns and grievances over the whole process and included an offer to the WRU to take them over if they so wished.
They also warned they would have to scale back on their playing costs if a deal could not be done and that there would be consequences with regard to international player release.
And thatâs where we stand now.
So what next?
The basic elements of the deal which has been on the table have been known for some time.
It would see the core sum to the regions remaining at Â£6.7m, but an additional Â£2m would be made available for the central contracting of star players.
That would take those big names off the wage bills of the regions, freeing up money for them to spend on strengthening their squads.
Rugby issues which needed to be agreed upon included overseas player quotas and the number of games Welsh squad members would play per season.
The big question now is what aspects of the document sent back by the WRU on Thursday have particularly angered the regions?
One senior RRW figure is reported as claiming the Union had âchanged seven key itemsâ, while the WRU, for their part, say they are unclear what the points of contention are as they have not been informed by the regions.
Itâs all a bit of a mess and at the moment it feels like we are going round and round in circles.
I often come off the phone from the respective parties feeling a bit like a marriage guidance counsellor. Given the current divorce footing, I am not doing a very good job!
In all seriousness, the situation is, well…serious. Very serious.
As things stand, there is no financial or rugby agreement in place between the two bodies, with all the consequent repercussions.
What are the big unresolved questions?
In the immediate term, there is the question of how the regions are going to keep paying their staff with the Union money no longer coming in?
Will there have to be a firesale of star players to balance the books? Itâs a horrible thought.
What will it mean for the Academies, with the WRU having contributed Â£600,000 a year towards the cost of running them?
What does it mean for the one centrally contracted player – Wales captain Sam Warburton?
Will he be able to play for the Blues? And will the Arms Park outfit be able to go ahead with their planned signing of Welsh-qualified Kiwi Gareth Anscombe?
Moreover, will the regions be able to compete in the Pro12 if they have no agreement in place with the WRU?
One wonders what new competition sponsors Guinness must make of it all.
Questions, questions and more questions, many of them with no answers.
People tell me not to panic and that a deal will be done.
All I can say is, heavens above, I hope they are right.
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