And Wales hooker Ken Owens has branded an expected Scarlets-Ospreys merger as the “most challenging situation” of his career.
Owens also said: “This is not going to split us at all, it is going to bring us closer together. We are looking forward to taking some frustration out [against Scotland on Saturday].”
Scores of Welsh professional players’ immediate futures are in limbo, with Wales’ Professional Rugby Board (PRB) trying to thrash out a solution in meetings held yesterday.
Those hopes were hit, though, when the Ospreys announced that Mike James resigned as their chairman at the start of Tuesday’s PRB meeting, citing the Welsh Rugby Union’s “catastrophic mismanagement” of efforts to overhaul the game.
Wales’ PRB comprises representatives from the WRU and existing regions the Scarlets, Ospreys, Dragons and Cardiff Blues. A new professional team in north Wales could be formed as part of so-called Project Reset in Welsh rugby’s biggest domestic shake-up since the inception of regional sides 16 years ago.
WRU chief executive Martyn Phillips addressed the Wales players on Monday, but it is all being played out against a back-drop of Wales chasing a first Six Nations title for six years. Victory in their final two games, against Scotland at BT Murrayfield this weekend and Ireland in Cardiff seven days later, would also secure a Grand Slam.
“There is no doubt the players have been distracted,” Wales head coach Gatland said. “Players are going home and they have been asked questions about what is going on and what is going to happen.
“There is no doubt it has been a distraction, and we are trying to limit that distraction, which is why we had the meeting yesterday to try and inform the players about what was going on so we could put it behind us and really focus on an important game for us.
“There is no doubt it has been a challenge for the players in the last couple of days. This hasn’t been driven by the Union. The Union was approached by two of the regions about a consideration about a possible merger. This proposal came from the regions to the Professional Rugby Board, and they will sit down and hopefully find a solution.
“We have a special group of players at the moment, and [Wales captain and Ospreys player] Alun Wyn Jones said at the end of the meeting that our whole focus has to be on Saturday and preparing for the best way to play Scotland.
“Sometimes you have to have the ability in all walks of life, whether it be professional or sport, to put adversity behind you and focus on your job. I am sure the players will do that.”
It is understood that the favoured plan is to retain four regional teams, comprising a new side in north Wales, an Ospreys-Scarlets merger, Blues and Dragons.
Owens, the Scarlets hooker and Welsh Rugby Players’ Association chairman, added: “As the chairman of the WRPA, I am deeply concerned about the situation that the players across the four regions face. I recognise that this is the most challenging situation that I or arguably any player has faced during our rugby careers.
“We were told nothing was off the table, but it was still a bit of a shock to be told of the merger. Obviously, as players, we want what’s best for Welsh rugby. We can’t hide from the fact that for whatever reason regional rugby has been struggling to compete consistently. If this is the best way forward, then as players we will support it.
“Of course, there is a little bit of anger. For someone like Alun Wyn [Jones] or myself, who have been one-club men and played for one region, there is a question of how is the new entity going to look?
“I know things happen quickly and are never straightforward in Welsh rugby, but there is anger because there is still the decision where some boys have got offers over the [Severn] Bridge. Do they take that offer to secure their livelihoods, or do they wait to see what happens in Wales?”
James, meanwhile, said in a statement released by the Ospreys: “None of us doubt that regional rugby requires restructuring in order to ensure the long-term sustainability of the game.
“The way in which this has been handled, however, is nothing short of chaotic. Project Reset has become Project Inept. I cannot, and will not, be a party to this level of catastrophic mismanagement.”