Rugby Union’s Autumn Internationals are just a few weeks away and for Wales, the build-up would not be complete without one thing: a row over selection policy. On top of that, it’s a row that looks like it may end the international career of one of Wales’ best performers over the past few years. Self-inflicted wounds never seem far away in Welsh Rugby.
First of all, it’s worth explaining what the new policy actually is. The change means that in order for players to remain eligible for Wales whilst playing abroad, they must have 60 caps or more, in a similar fashion to the current policy in Australia.
This replaces the old policy that had been in place since last year, an overly complicated system where no players could be picked from abroad, with the exception of players who had contracts signed before the imposition of the policy and three wild card picks made by the coach, known as ‘Gatland’s Law’ after the coach of the national team, Warren Gatland.
There are certainly some good reasons for making this change. With a steady stream of key players leaving Wales in recent years, including Liam Williams to Saracens and Dan Biggar to Northampton, there was a very real risk of having to leave out important figures in the team because of the policy, especially worrying with the Rugby World Cup in Japan only a couple of years away.
The policy also does seem to have the desired effect on some players, with Luke Charteris admitting he would have thought again about playing abroad had the policy been in place when he left the Dragons for Perpignan in 2012. So in some respects, the new policy is a good compromise between having the best squad available at the World Cup, whilst encouraging players to stay at Welsh regions for longer before joining clubs in England and France.
Arguably, the prior position was simply too complicated. Burdened with caveat upon caveat, the old policy had more holes than Swiss cheese, making it far too complex and flimsy to win the trust and understanding of the fan base, who have seen it make little impact on the composition of squads since its introduction. As well as this, the success of harsher policies in Ireland and England, where only home based players are considered for selection suggests that in future, the new law could act as a real deterrent to players considering playing their club rugby outside of Wales.
“Webb has not held back in his feelings about having his international career ended abruptly”
However, just a few weeks into its inception, the policy has already caused problems. Namely, this has come in the form of Rhys Webb, Wales’ first choice Scrum-Half and one of the national side’s best performers over the past few years. The 28 times capped Ospreys player agreed to join the French side Toulon for next season in October, before the announcement of the new selection criteria, but having less than 60 caps, he won’t be eligible to play for Wales when he plays for the French giants next season.
Understandably, Webb has not held back in his feelings about having his international career ended abruptly, saying
“It’s a joke. I’m disappointed. Representing your country means so much to me and being told I won’t be able to play for them is heart-breaking.”
Head coach Warren Gatland has asked his first choice scrum half to reconsider his move, but is it really on him to do so? He agreed a contract with Toulon that would make his family secure for life, trusting that he would still be eligible to represent his country, but has had that confidence betrayed. Surely it’s down to the Welsh Rugby Union to work out a solution, not Rhys Webb.
“The new selection policy is certainly flawed, but it is likely to be the best solution going forward to the unending saga of disputes over selection policy”
It’s also important to remember why Rhys Webb has only 28 caps for his country. His career has been severely disrupted by injury, including a serious foot injury sustained during Wales’ game with Italy in 2015 that ruled him out of the Rugby World Cup that year. If it weren’t for this bad fortune, Webb would certainly be closer to the 60-cap mark.
It seems strange to me that a player who has given great performances for Wales, and suffered significant injuries in the process is not deemed sufficiently loyal, whilst Hadleigh Parkes, who only becomes qualified on residency grounds for Wales on the day of the test with South Africa on December 2nd, is eligible for the squad.
Moreover, it is questionable whether players playing club Rugby outside of Wales is a huge impediment to the team. Playing in some of the top teams in England and France, and playing in the frequent high intensity, high stakes games that come with it would surely help to develop the standards of the squad, especially a squad that has failed to win key games in recent years against sides like England (no win since 2013) and Australia (no win since 2008).
The examples of the likes of Stephen Jones and Jonathan Davies have shown that spells abroad can be a real catalyst for improvement in Welsh players. Likewise, as long as the Welsh regional sides struggle to compete in the main European competition, with no semi-finalist since Cardiff Blues in 2009, players are always going to be attracted to clubs offering the chance to win club rugby’s most prestigious competition.
To sum up then, the new selection policy is certainly flawed, but it is likely to be the best solution going forward to the unending saga of disputes over selection policy between the national team and regional sides. It will likely mean that players will stay in Wales for longer than they otherwise would, keeping the regional sides happy, and actually gives the Union some bite in influencing selection in favour of home based players. However, as is clear in the Rhys Webb case that bite has come at some short-term cost, which has left the WRU with some very bad PR and the team without one of its best players at the next World Cup.