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High hopes: Wales eye international boost after Euro club misery

Paris (AFP) – According to the bare statistics, Wales are the world’s third-best rugby union team, behind only the mighty All Blacks and Ireland, but their clubs are failing to match the dizzy heights of the national side.

For the seventh time in ten years no Welsh region has qualified for the quarter-finals of the top tier competition of European rugby.

As a contrast, in the same period, the national team have reached a World Cup semi-final, claimed two Six Nations titles which also included a Grand Slam in 2012.

The Scarlets and the Cardiff Blues missed out on the Champions Cup last eight failing to qualify from pools which included former European Cup winners in Leicester, Ulster and Saracens as well as last season’s runners-up Racing 92.

The Blues’ coach John Mulvihill said there’s a big difference between playing pools compared to sides from other countries.

“For a squad that is not as deep as the teams we are playing, we can take some credit out of that. It is about making sure our squads are deep enough to cover when boys are away or we have injuries,” he told BBC Sport Wales.

“It is the luck of the draw as well depending on who you get. There are some big teams in Europe and we have to understand where we are at and where we are going to be in a couple of years time.”

The Scarlets’ Wayne Pivac — who will take over from Warren Gatland as Wales coach after this year’s World Cup — echoed his Blues counterparts’ thoughts.

“We haven’t had a lot of luck in the competition through players being unavailable,” said Pivac whose team’s run to the semi-finals last season was at least a glimmer of hope in that it was a first last-four spot for a Welsh side since 2007.

The other two Welsh regions, the Ospreys and Dragons, fell short in the second-tier European Challenge Cup — a competition the capital city-based Blues won in May and in 2010.

The regions only managed seven victories in 24 European fixtures this term and it’s the first time since 2013/2014 there will be no Welsh knock-out representation in either of the two continental competitions.

– Money talks –

With less than two weeks to the start of the Six Nations all of Wales’ rivals have a side through to the next stage of at least one of the tournaments.

Both Ireland and Scotland will see all their domestic outfits in action at the end of March and France have both Racing 92 and Toulouse through in the Champions Cup.

England have Saracens in the European Cup quarter-finals.

Even Italy have their first ever European last-eight spot thanks to Benetton Treviso in the Challenge Cup.

Not surprisingly, money is at the root of the problem.

Each of the four Welsh teams have annual operational budgets of no more than £6.5m when sides in England’s Premiership, France’s Top 14 as well as the Irish provinces, who face Welsh regions in the Pro14, reportedly spend more than double the figure on salaries, facilities and academies.

In contrast, Stade Francais in Paris boast a £30m budget for this season.

Welsh domestic rugby’s financing has been a controversial subject in the decades since the game turned professional in 1995.

This season marks 15 years since one of the original regions, the Celtic Warriors were disbanded after just 12 months of existence.

Presently the remaining regions and the Welsh Rugby Union are holding discussions about a new agreement on how much money the professional outfits receive.

At the semi-professional level there are both success stories and sorry tales.

Merthyr lead the Welsh Premiership mainly thanks to investment from multi-millionaire businessman Stanley Thomas.

At the other end of the table, Neath, established in 1871 and one of the country’s storied clubs where the likes of future national skipper Jonathan Davies and Shane Williams cut their teeth, have been deducted points for failing to fulfil league fixtures.

The ‘Welsh All Blacks’ also face a winding-up petition at the end of January after the last case in December was dismissed.

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