CHRIS KIRWAN: Talk of central contracts an unwelcome distraction in attempts to bridge funding gap
Updated 10:23am Thursday 23rd January 2014 in Sport
THEY may have said the decisions were tough but the choice to go to France was a lot easier for ex-Dragons Dan Lydiate and Luke Charteris than for some of their Wales teammates.
For Lydiate, Charteris, Jamie Roberts, Mike Phillips, James Hook et al it was simply a choice of staying at their region or taking up a bumper offer in the Top 14.
Nobody blames them for heading over the channel; it's a short career and players are only one bad injury away from retirement.
But for the current crop that are out of contract this summer – Sam Warburton, Leigh Halfpenny, Alun Wyn Jones, Adam Jones, Rhys Priestland and Scott Williams – there is a third option.
They can head to another country, they can stay put with their region or they can take the Welsh Rugby Union up on a contract offer and avoid upping sticks.
It is one of the more baffling parts of the spat between the regions and the WRU; at a time when all parties are being encouraged to somehow thrash out a solution, they are acting as rivals for the same talent.
Of course, the players are caught in the middle, being forced to choose between club and country.
But the notion that the WRU can dish out a handful of deals to star players is farcical; central contracts have to be all or nothing to work... and where would the money come from to fund the all option?
With top players now commanding (conservatively) £250,000 a year then that's an awful lot of cash for the Millennium Stadium chiefs to stump up if they are to give deals to the national squad plus the future talent, especially given that the current amount of £1.2million that the WRU pays for player release.
If there is a magic pot of pounds – or "further inventory" as chief executive Roger Lewis bizarrely coins it – why is it not being released while the pro game and club game is floundering?
On the face of it – and ignoring the rather important part of where the money would come from – some sort of central contracting would be attractive to the regions.
Sam Warburton is one of the nicest sportsmen that I have had the pleasure of dealing with and is always polite and thoughtful when carrying out his media commitments.
But the publishers of the 25-year-old's second book have got more value out of him than Cardiff Blues this season because of injury.
The flanker has played five games this season while the tally was 16 in 2012/13 and eight in the campaign before that.
That's simply not worth a big contract with the way that the regions are currently compensated.
It could be argued that if players are heading off to France then it would surely be better for the Union to step in and help.
However, by backing the Aviva Premiership clubs' Rugby Champions Cup the regions state that they have already secured £12million extra over three years that will help in the battle to retain the top talent.
The English and the French are the big players in Europe thanks to the bumper TV deals they have done with BT Sport and Canal+ respectively.
They have done that by providing a quality product (a ghastly word) where top talent plays week in, week out.
That is something that plenty of Wales players are more than happy to do.
Last season the Ospreys thumped the Dragons at the Liberty Stadium the Friday after Wales won the Six Nations yet they boasted Alun Wyn Jones, Adam Jones, Justin Tipuric, Dan Biggar, Richard Hibbard and Ian Evans in their ranks.
With central contracts they might not have the choice; the decision about whether they turn out in front of their own fans could be made by those in Wales' Vale of Glamorgan headquarters.
Increasing the revenue brought in through club rugby is the way to keep the top talent, not relying on money provided by the already saturated Test scene.
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