The appetite for Welsh fly-halves by English clubs is not a new phenomenon, though the signing of Scarlets product and Welsh International 10 Rhys Priestland by Bath last week, has once again brought the issue to the forefront of people’s minds. Bath are a great club with good coaches and forward thinking plans to develop their stadium and possibly the best training facilities in England. The move on the face of it is therefore a good one for Priestland, who will almost certainly have increased his salary substantially by crossing the bridge into a league with more interest and less financial constraint than the Pro12. Equally, living in Cardiff won’t make his journey to his new workplace a particularly arduous one, and he is treading a well-worn path of Welsh players to the “axis” of English clubs along the border such as Bristol and Gloucester as well as Bath.
The attacking style of Bath is however is far more suited to the style of George Ford, who plays more in the “moment”, bringing the ball to the line and adjusting his game to play what he sees in front of him. I’m not certain this is Priestland’s natural way of playing and whilst he is undoubtedly a talented young player, I worry that he could be spending a good deal of time warming the bench playing second fiddle to Ford and only getting a run in the shirt during international periods, or when his rival is injured.
And what of his international aspirations? If he does indeed get less game time than he would have enjoyed at the Scarlets then certainly the move won’t have done him any favours, but neither will the introduction of the so-called “Gatland’s Law”, if indeed it is fully enforced, which I somewhat doubt. So far this has only been spoken about as and when it suits those who would like it to be implemented. Indeed, this “law” appears nothing but a smokescreen created by the local hacks with so many loopholes even the WRU CEO, during one recent TV interview, seemed unclear as to what the policy actually is.
Whilst the Scarlets will certainly recover from the loss of their talisman, as they did when Stephen Jones joined Montferrand in 2004, there is already some concern over who can replace Priestland straight away. Yet the Scarlets have for years had Jordan Williams on their books, although they have persisted in playing him out of position at full-back and on the wing, and now questions are being asked of his ability to step into the regional 10 shirt on a regular basis. To me this situation highlights deeper issues within the “modern” Welsh game. Whereas once we were a nation known for placing our faith in a talented and unpredictable fly-half full of flair to drive the team forward with their innate ability, now we rely on reliable performers who can effectively implement the game plan currently “en vogue”.
Whether this is purely down to the National team employing a Southern Hemisphere coach, or a rather more profound problem is not exactly clear, however what is certain is that younger players are being overlooked before they have the chance to fully develop. I often worry that coaches are spending too much time coaching the “why” of the game, rather than the “how”. As a former player who has experience in this position, I always looked to plan several phases ahead trying to manipulate defences, in a similar way to the game is now played. Back then the game was much different though in many ways, and the coaches mantra of “ball-retention” was yet to be invented. However, where once basic skillsets and self-preservation were vital, now there is emphasis on power, ball-retention and getting over the gain-line. Rugby has seemingly become a chess match at the top level, rather than allowing those gifted footballers and playmakers to use the space they see in front of them and do what comes most naturally.
Ironically, this is exactly how Bath play their game, and their current 10-12-13 axis could herald a change in the way England themselves play, if Stuart Lancaster chooses to select Ford, Joseph and Eastmond en bloc, although I sincerely doubt he will given his selections to date. Whilst Priestland doesn’t obviously fit into this style, he certainly has the talent to work into the role. However players like Jordan Williams and also Matthew Morgan who came through the Welsh Junior ranks should not be neglected, and instead must also be given the chance to thrive in teams with the same free-spirit and emphasis on flair as the West Country side. They should be given the same opportunities as their English counterparts Owen Farrell and Ford himself, who both progressed through the English system at exactly the same time as Williams and Morgan, yet enjoy far more acclaim in their home country with starring roles on the International stage.
With Gareth Davies now at the helm of the Welsh Rugby Union, things will undoubtedly change and hopefully we can reverse the flow of talent out of the country. Already though, as well as Priestland and Morgan, Owen Williams and James Hook are playing senior rugby in England, and there are also emerging talented youngsters like Callum Sheedy and Matthew Protheroe pursuing their own development over the border. The last 5 or 6 years could prove catastrophic for Welsh rugby if we are not careful, but things can change quickly if we act now and stop the player drain.
For this to be successful however, perhaps we need to alter our own mindset in Wales, and move our focus back to the flair fly-halves we all admired in days gone by. Let us start promoting players on their ability and giving the youngsters the chance to develop their talents before we discard them for being the wrong shape or size. Let us nurture the playmakers in our game for they are the ones who can change our fortunes. Whilst Rhys Priestland’s move is more than likely based on money and European aspirations, he will most probably also develop these very attributes in a free-flowing Bath side.
After watching three high quality Aviva Premiership games last weekend, between Bath and Wasps, Sale and Northampton, and Gloucester and Saracens, compared to some dour Pro12 fixtures at Swansea, Cardiff and Glasgow, one must conclude that Priestland is an outside half who has seen what is in front of him and made the right play. Good luck to him in any case, and particularly to other fly-halves prepared to buck the trend and unleash their flair.