Tommy Bowe: Former Lion calls for Wales' rugby regions to be axed from four to two

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Tommy Bowe says Wales doesn't have the resources to support four regional clubs. Credit: ITV Cymru Wales

A former British and Irish Lion who spent several seasons playing in Wales has called for the number of regions to be axed from four to two - in a bid to improve the fortunes of Welsh rugby.

Tommy Bowe spent four years at the Ospreys between 2008 and 2012, scoring 37 tries and winning two league titles in the process. But the Irishman, who won 69 caps for his country and played in five Lions tests, has voiced his concerns about the state of Welsh rugby and says changes are needed to get it back on track.

Speaking to ITV Wales’s Y Byd ar Bedwar programme, Bowe said: “People in Wales love their rugby but for whatever reason they haven’t really been able to buy into what the regions are.”

Little more than 80 miles separate Wales’s four professional rugby clubs the Scarlets, Ospreys, Cardiff and Dragons. Bowe believes having so many clubs squeezed into a comparatively small area has stretched resources too thinly.

Tommy Bowe spent four years playing for the Swansea based Ospreys. Credit: PA

“There’s not enough players, there’s not enough money to be able to draw sponsors who can really drive on four professional teams in my opinion. 

“If I was to look at the Welsh system now I personally think that if you split it down the middle and you had a divide, say around Bridgend, and you had a West Walian team and an East Walian team I can only imagine how competitive and how good a team you would have. 

“A West Wales team or an East Wales team would be able to compete with the best in Europe."

With less than a year remaining until the 2023 Rugby World Cup, Ireland are currently the number one ranked side in the world. On top of this, their clubs are generally outperforming their Welsh rivals in the United Rugby Championship.

Bowe says Wales have a lot to learn from his homeland’s success.

Bowe would represent Ireland on 69 different occasions, scoring 30 tries. Credit: PA

The former Osprey said: “It’s a professional game now and from what I gather in Wales a lot of the decisions that are made on the professional game are made by people who’ve been involved in the (amateur) club system for so long.

“But really if Wales and the regions want to progress and want to compete with the best teams in the world you have to take a professional mindset with it. That’s something that we’ve seen in Ireland and we’re reaping the rewards from it."

The Welsh Rugby Union has come in for stern criticism from fans and former players over recent weeks following a disappointing autumn international campaign and difficulties in reaching a new funding agreement with the regions.

There have been renewed calls for the Union to change its government structures. The WRU posted a turnover of £94.3m this year but its board is mostly made up of elected community club representatives.

Steve Phillips took over as CEO of the Welsh Rugby Union in March 2021. Credit: ITV Cymru Wales

Speaking to y Byd ar Bedwar’s Dot Davies, the WRU’s chief executive, Steve Phillips has defended his fellow directors.

Mr Phillips, who has been in the role since 2020 said: “I don’t really like the criticism, to be bluntly honest, of the community-appointed directors. I just think that’s inappropriate.” 

He added: “You’ve got to remember the WRU is here to save not only the professional side of the game. It’s got a commercial operation, it’s got a community arm to deliver, it’s got a professional arm to deliver. And if we don’t deliver all of them and around the same time we’re probably doing something wrong."

Mr Phillips called for alignment between all different levels of Welsh rugby, with everybody working towards common goals.

He acknowledged the relationship between the Union and the four regions has not been ideal but hoped the imminent prospect of a new financial agreement could help improve the situation.

When asked if he felt Wales could sustain four professional regions, Mr Phillips said: “I think the answer is we’ve got to make them sustainable. 

“It needs to be four teams for a whole raft of reasons; history, heritage and playing pool for the international team. Do I think we could go down to two and keep our history in Wales? No, I don’t.”

Watch the full interview on Y Byd ar Bedwar, available with English language subtitles, on S4C at 8pm