A call for rugby fans in Wales to look forward with optimism to Welsh rugby on the field in 2009 in what will be a tough year economically off it has been delivered by the Group Chief Executive of the Welsh Rugby Union, Roger Lewis, in a New Year message.
He urged all Welsh rugby fans to enjoy the prospect of a great 12 months of rugby with the Welsh Rugby Union well placed to meet the challenges of the year ahead.
The Chief Executive called on the followers of the sport in Wales to reflect on the formidable line-up of games to come which will place rugby on the centre stage of sport in Wales throughout the year and to recognise the extraordinary array of rugby coaching and management talent the WRU has assembled.
He also pointed out the strong financial base the WRU has built following recent changes in structure and strategy which have helped secure the future of the game from the grass roots to the national squad and heaped praise on the current crop of Welsh rugby stars.
On the field Welsh fans face an action-packed year of international rugby as well as the prospect of strong Welsh challenges for Heineken Cup, EDF Energy Cup and Magners League success.
The games begin early in the New Year with the RBS 6 Nations Championship complimented by the Womens and the U20's competitions as well.
In February the Wales Sevens squad will be competing in IRB Sevens World series action in Wellington, New Zealand and then in San Diego, USA.
March will see the squad will fly to Dubai where the Rugby World Cup Sevens will be taking place.
In April the U16's 4 Nations tournament will take place entirely in Wales hosted by Welsh rugby and during the same month the 18's 6 Nations festival will kick off in Italy
Supporters will hardly have time to take a breath before Wales fly off in late May for a two test tour in the USA and Canada.
In June the IRB Junior World Championship for U20 international teams takes place in Japan and the British and Irish Lions will be in South Africa with the majority of the coaching staff coming from the Welsh national set-up..
All that happens before another Invesco Perpetual Autumn Series at the Millennium Stadium where Wales will again face the challenge of top southern hemisphere opposition.
Asked to consider the coming twelve months Roger Lewis said:
"In 2009 Welsh rugby fans will be able to savour a feast of top class international sport featuring all our age grade, senior and womens teams.
"I know how hard our players, coaches and administrators are already working to ensure the games are of the highest possible standard and they will want to bring a smile to the loyal fans with some victories to celebrate.
"Off the field I look forward to 2009 with confidence because I know that we are well placed to concentrate our efforts in the right direction which is the development of the game in Wales.
"We have enjoyed recent success financially as a union and we have built management, operational and rugby development teams capable of delivering our strategic plans.
"Most importantly of all we have got an incredible group of players in the Welsh set-up who have responded brilliantly to the demands of the past year and are more than equipped to face up to whatever the next twelve months has in store for them. More over they are a great bunch of people which all of Wales is rightly proud of."
Asked about the appointment of a Head of Rugby Performance and Development, Lewis responded:
"I said I would take my time after the lessons of the past year and ensure we got the right man. I am delighted that we have been able to welcome Joe Lydon on board as Head of Rugby Performance and Development and 2009 is the year when we will begin to reap the benefit of his appointment. Joe's knowledge of the game at the highest level accompanied by his management skills makes him the right man, the wait was worth it. He joins my executive board and he has already got stuck in to the job at hand."
His comments on all of the coaching staff were equally positive.
"With Warren and his team taking the senior squad brilliantly forward and Joe looking after the wider spectrum of Welsh rugby we are in safe hands. Other rugby nations around the world are rightly jealous of the talent and expertise we have been able to muster.
"In Craig White we have the best conditioning coach in world rugby. That's why he is going on the Lions tour. Furthermore Rob Howley and Shaun Edwards have been recognised as world class coaches this year and so to they will head off to South Africa along with one of the sharpest analysts in the game, our own Rhys Long. All of the Welsh back room coaching and management staff is superb. Without doubt Warren's arrival in Wales has been quite simply outstanding and I look forward to continue working with him right through the Rugby World Cup in 2011."
But the economic indicators are very depressing. What does Lewis say about that?
"Of course there are formidable challenges immediately ahead of us but right now the Welsh Rugby Union has the people, the structures and the operational systems to go forward with vigour and meet any problems head on.
"We know the challenges of the economic downturn will be demanding but we are in good shape to cope with this in the year ahead. The executive board of the WRU has worked tirelessly this year to get the deals done well ahead of the current financial downturn.
"Our major sponsorship agreements are in place, we are close to finalising our new broadcast agreements and the demand for tickets for the imminent Six Nations home internationals against England and Ireland can give us all confidence."
But what about grass roots clubs, how will they cope?
"The WRU is very aware that some of our clubs will find the going tough so we are determined, as a union, to deliver the right advice and help where we can to make them as efficient as possible in order to achieve sustainability.
"We are already distributing financial help, over a million pounds, to improve community club facilities and the effort will not stop there.
"Over Christmas we announced that income generated by recent VAT reduction which affects Six Nations tickets will be spent on initiatives to help community clubs."
But what about the Premiership, they too are finding it tough?
"Again the WRU is alert to the tough challenges faced by our Premiership clubs, but their importance to the development of the game in Wales is unquestioned and their success and sustainability is a genuine priority for the WRU. Joe Lydon has begun a dialogue with them and they know the union is and always has been committed to them.
"What all this means is that we are not shying away from problems, but we are facing them in the knowledge that we as a union and a fellowship are strong enough to tackle them."
The Regions though don't appear to be part of this fellowship?
"Well, as you know, the four Regions prior to Christmas elected to continue with the current agreement for a further five years and we were all very pleased with that decision. Progress is now being made with our four Regions aimed at formulating a new operating agreement for the future and, although I won't hide from the fact there have been difficulties, we are now on the right track.
"The process so far has generated some lurid headlines about squabbles and problems, but I can assure everyone involved in Welsh rugby I have never lost my respect and admiration for those people out in the Regions who genuinely care about the WRU, Wales and Welsh rugby and are committed to developing Welsh players. We will get there.
"I also want to take this opportunity to compliment all the volunteers who make Welsh rugby work and the Board of Directors of the WRU who continue to work so hard to ensure the game in Wales remains, and will continue to thrive, as our national sport. Rugby will survive and flourish in Wales so long as we continue to nurture home grown Welsh talent.
"Furthermore I want to acknowledge the help I get day in day out from the WRU Chairman, David Pickering who is now a major figure in the administration of world rugby, and the WRU President, Dennis Gethin, who has proved himself as a great and distinguished statesman who has earned respect wherever Wales play rugby."
And what about the British and Irish Lions this year? This must be something special for Wales?
"Well, I've already mentioned the great tribute paid to Warren and his coaching team by their selection and we are all hoping that our players are also well recognised and represented on the tour. It is fitting too that, in looking forward to the year ahead, we remind ourselves of the incredible achievements of the legendary Welsh player and now rugby administrator, Gerald Davies who has been appointed Manager of the British and Irish Lions.
"It is extremely rare for any player to achieve world class status on the field and then to go on to match that with outstanding success in rugby off the field. Gerald Davies has done that.
"To me he is a symbol of the values we aim to enshrine in Welsh rugby and we should all take strength from and feel pride in his success."
And your last words on the year ahead?
"We all have to enjoy 2009 and savour it, The past year was extraordinary, but we are all now focussed upon creating new memories in the year ahead. To all of you, Happy New Year and let's all look forward to another great twelve months of Welsh rugby."
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