The Scarlets have confirmed that rival Pro14 club Ospreys pulled the plug on their controversial merger deal at the last minute on Tuesday to continue the messy reform of the club game that has left Welsh rugby in crisis.
Under ‘Project Reset’, the Welsh Rugby Union (WRU) has developed a plan to merge two of the four current regional sides and form a new professional team in North Wales, based in Colwyn Bay.
But those plans were thrown into huge jeopardy on Tuesday when Ospreys chairman Mike James informed the Professional Game Board (PGB) that they were no longer committed to the merger, before resigning from his position.
The Ospreys proceeded to issue a fiercely-worded statement to detail why they were pulling out of the deal and label the way that the WRU has handled the matter “nothing short of chaotic, resulting in a fatal combination of uncertainty, conjecture and insecurity now hanging over regional rugby’s future.”
The Scarlets have now released a statement of their own to inform fans of how the merger agreement was initially reached in January, taken off the table by the Ospreys as they explored a deal with another region, before being resurrected last week.
“Firstly, we can confirm the statement issued by the Professional Rugby Board (PRB) on Tuesday afternoon as accurate, as are the comments made by Wales’ national coach that the proposed merger was driven by the regions, in consultation with the PRB,” the Scarlets said in a statement on Wednesday.
“In late December, the Scarlets received a high-level approach from the Ospreys to explore the option of a merger as they had come to the conclusion that their position as tenants at the Liberty Stadium was proving to be challenging.
“This was discussed at the two-day strategy meeting of PRB on January 8th and 9th. The loss of a region would have put Welsh rugby in breach of its commitment to having four regions playing in the major competitions. As a result, the option of a team playing out of North Wales was raised.
“By the time of the next PRB meeting on February 5, discussions had broken down between the Scarlets and Ospreys and we were told that the Ospreys and another region were in talks over a possible merger, again with North Wales being the option to maintain four teams.
“Subsequently, those discussions also broke down and we were approached again last week by the Ospreys to reconsider a merger.
“Heads of terms were agreed and signed by the Ospreys and Scarlets on March 1 on terms we believe our supporters would be happy with. This was to be proposed at a meeting of the PRB on Tuesday afternoon, but we were told at the start of that meeting that the Ospreys had changed their mind.”
Crucially, Scarlets have now echoed what Ospreys claimed on Tuesday in that “the merger is off the table”, leaving the WRU desperately short on time with only two months until a number of Welsh-based players become free agents with huge uncertainty over their future.
Scarlets moved to ease fears among their supporters, adding: “In recent years, the Scarlets have been building steadily to regain our place as one of Europe’s leading sides. We have a superb stadium, great staff, loyal and passionate supporters and a team to be proud of. We know that the problems regarding Welsh rugby have not gone away but we remain committed to the best interests of the Scarlets and the game in Wales.”
But the uncertainty over who will and won’t be playing in Wales next season – and subsequently for the national team due to the WRU’s selection policy – has left Welsh rugby in a crisis at a time when Warren Gatland’s side are just two wins away from a famous Six Nations Grand Slam.