Fears Welsh rugby regions could lose their Lions heroes
WELSH rugby could be hit by the most crushing blow it has suffered in the professional era, with six key members of Warren Gatland's squad in danger of being lost to France if the impasse over European rugby isn't broken quickly.
Alun Wyn Jones, Adam Jones, Ian Evans, Jonathan Davies, Leigh Halfpenny and Sam Warburton are all out of contract next season, but there are increasing fears the row over the Heineken Cup could leave them easy pickings for wealthy clubs from the Top 14.
Some of the six have told their regions they would be happy to stay put.
But the uncertainty over Europe has left the Ospreys, Scarlets, Blues and Dragons unclear on how far their budgets will extend next season, meaning in many of the cases they have been unable to table fresh offers.
And that is increasing the likelihood there will be a mass exodus at the end of the season, stripping the game in Wales of some of its brightest stars and leaving youngsters here with fewer role models to look up to.
It would also leave Gatland to prepare for the next World Cup with most of the national squad based outside the country.
A leading figure at one of the regions told the Evening Post: "Every day that goes by, these French clubs are knocking louder and louder at the door, sniffing blood.
"We have to sort it out, for the players' sakes more than anything else.
"These kids want to stay in Wales.
"But we are not giving them opportunities to do so because there is too much uncertainty over our budgets. It is unfair on the boys involved."
The regions will lose a minimum of £4.4 million between them if there is no European competition next season, a figure that doesn't take into account gate receipts that would be lost and possible damage from sponsors not being so keen to put names on jerseys if there is no flagship competition for regions and clubs to play in.
That has left the Ospreys, Scarlets, Blues and Dragons in dangerous financial waters.
They have a participation agreement with the WRU worth £16.5 million.
But a quarter of that money could be lost, so the regions are examining whether the union are legally obliged to provide them with a meaningful competition structure.
Even the much-heralded £1 million one-off payment from the Welsh Rugby Union, which was supposed to help the regional game in Wales, is believed to be conditional upon the Ospreys, Scarlets, Blues and Dragons signing a new participation agreement.
Complicating matters is that the union's decision to stop the regions from getting involved in a breakaway European competition with the English and French clubs.
The four professional sides are becoming frustrated with the hand they have been dealt by their governing body and are desperate for the situation to improve.
"We need clarity on so many issues it is unbelievable," said the source.
"The situation is like two divorced parents having a go at each other and their children are left to suffer.
"We have to do right by these kids who are playing the game.
"There has to be some sort of compromise at European level and between the regions and the WRU, because if there isn't the damage to the game here will be incalculable."
Increasingly, players are going to have to make early calls on their futures, with French clubs tending to do their business early, notwithstanding rules are supposed to prohibit such practices.
Toulon are said to be chasing Halfpenny and Warburton, with Clermont Auvergne also interested, while Adam Jones, Alun Wyn Jones, Evans and Davies would have no problems finding new homes in the Top 14.