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Eddie Butler calls for Welsh rugby to quit URC, rip up regions and let players leave

Respected Welsh rugby figure and broadcaster Eddie Butler has insisted the regions must consider pulling out of the United Rugby Championship, with the game here at a crossroads.

Going one step further, Butler also believes the regional model, which has been in place since 2003, should be scrapped in favor of a return to a more traditional club structure.

In recent months, the future of the professional game in Wales has been hotly-debated. None of the four Welsh regions finished in the top half of the URC and the financial implications of the Covid-19 pandemic are stark. The future of the game is currently being discussed by powerbrokers, however recent proposals to slash a region were publicly denounced and appear to have been scrapped.

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Everyone seemingly agrees that change is required but a workable plan is yet to materialize.

Giving his views to The Rugby Paper Podcast, Butler, who is the voice of the URC in Wales as the lead on Premier Sports’ coverage, said: “It’s a real problem. The creation of the regions was a short term fix for a long term financial problem. But you have to recognize at some stage that the fix doesn’t work.

“On the other hand, we’ve got two standalone regions – Llanelli, the Scarlets and Cardiff, formerly known as the Blues. They are still basically standalone clubs and they can’t cut it. What’s more, they can’t deliver a crowd and that’s the huge thing, if you don’t have a sense of theatre.

“One of the reasons the Gallagher Premiership looks better is because it plays to full houses and you get that full sense of theater and drama that goes with the full on sporting occasion. In Wales, wherever the television camera pans and whatever angle you try, you’re always aware that there are rows and rows of empty seats, and it simply doesn’t help.

“So you’ve got to look for a new model. Then you come slap into the problem of ‘okay, if you bring down the regional system, what do you replace it with?’ And nobody is really clear.

“You could say that Cardiff and Llanelli are the standalone models and they’re not working. So what does work? I think we’re reaching the point now where Wales has to contemplate just leaving the URC.

“If South Africa is forced to go it alone, then it goes back to the Currie Cup. Well, Wales might have to contemplate just going back to being Welsh.”

Butler also bemoaned Welsh rugby’s decision to turn down the opportunity to join the English league when it had the chance in 1999 having been offered six places, saying: “What would Wales give now to have a deal that offered them six places in the English top division?”

A number of options have been bandied around to salvage Welsh rugby in recent weeks. They range from a funding model which sees two teams pumped full of more cash, with the aim of making them competitive, and turning the other two into effectively developing regions, to simply going down to east and west Wales teams.

Every option thrown forward to this point is deemed deeply unpalatable to at least a section of rugby fans in Wales and whenever a decision is made, it is likely to make those making it deeply unpopular somewhere along the M4.

But Butler was not shy in his views that Welsh rugby has to be radical and advocated for the cessation of professional rugby in Wales as we know it.

He feels that if this system is not good enough for our best players, then they should be allowed to leave, leading to a regression back to a Welsh club competition that sits outside the URC.

When asked about the possible reduction of regions, the former Pontypool and Wales No.8 said: “I think we’ve got to be even more radical than that. I just think we ought to rip up the regional model and we go back to having the clubs.

“We’ve reached that point now where we’ve got to think smaller, export big. If our system isn’t good enough for fully fledged professionals then we have to be able to release them to go and ply their trade elsewhere.

“Then we just enjoy what Welsh rugby is for the time being. It’s vibrant, it’s inventive, it’s creative. We’re so watched in gloom at the moment that we’ve forgotten what it is to have fun. It’s so obvious at the moment that footballers are having fun and the Welsh [rugby] players are not playing with much of a smile on their face.”

What of the east and west suggestion?

“I still think that would be creating an artificial entity that is half of the regional system we have now. I’m trying to be futuristic about this and what would work.

“That is the real problem, it’s very difficult to find anybody in Wales with a clear vision of what would work.”

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Butler referred to a ‘Currie Cup in Wales’ during the interview but admitted that the possible solutions he tabled were very unlikely to come to fruition as they would be met with ‘huge’ resistance.

However, he did point out: “We’re going nowhere at the moment. Well, we are, we’re going backwards.

“You talk about big scores. When Benetton stuck 60 points on Cardiff, that was a telling result. When you see the way Cardiff played as well, that was a telling performance.”

Butler does concede, though, that allowing Wales’ top players to essentially play wherever they want if the current Welsh system cannot service them is a ‘catch 22’ as it would limit the time that national coach Wayne Pivac is able to spend with them, which could jeopardize the nation’s standing in the Test arena.

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