These are dangerous days for the men at the top of the Welsh Rugby Union. Yes, Roger Lewis (Group Chief Executive) and David Pickering (Chairman of the WRU Board) are well and truly under the cosh at present as they fight a battle on two fronts. On the one side they know time is running out to secure a new deal with the emboldened representatives of Regional Rugby Wales (the umbrella body representing the four Welsh regions). Their current ‘Participation Agreement’ which, among other things, secures player release for Welsh internationals in return for yearly funding expires on June 30. At the same time, the prospect of an Extraordinary General Meeting hangs over the WRU Board – an EGM called by the member clubs of the Union under the guidance of ex-CEO David Moffett and his ‘One Wales’ manifesto. The motion to be put forward? “That the WRU have not been acting in the best interests of Welsh Rugby and in particular the 320 clubs who are the members of the WRU”. Ouch.
But it hasn’t always been like this. Not so long ago, during those halcyon days when the Welsh national team were winning Grand Slams, Six Nations Championships and (not winning) World Cup semi-finals, it seemed that these men were untouchable. If there was a ‘good news’ story coming out of Welsh Rugby, you could bet your dragon-tattooed arm that it emanated from the Millennium Stadium and WRU Headquarters; so much so that the Welsh rugby public became used to seeing the Roger Lewis Colgate Smile™ lauding a string of victories both on and off the field. Some of those victories were notable: to the run of championships mentioned above, you could add the securing of Rugby World Cup 2015 games (despite it officially being an England bid), opening the 2012 London Olympics with football at the Millennium, or even (depending on your view) decreasing the debt on the national stadium by significant levels.
What’s interesting about the problems that are currently putting unprecedented pressure on the WRU is this: they are not new problems. Concerns about participation levels in Wales, the squeezed finances of both the professional and amateur game and the lack of success at regional level were all present during those times when Lewis was busily flossing for the next press conference. But back then it seemed that these issues were largely forgiven (or perhaps forgotten) as long as Lewis, Pickering and company delivered success for ‘Team Wales’. While that rusty old tanker called ‘Welsh rugby’ was still struggling to find its way in professional seas it seemed that the professionals at the helm were, at least, steering it towards clearer waters. That impression no longer stands with the majority of Welsh rugby fans. But why? Well, there are a few reasons:
1. The momentum of the Regions
The recent European Cup crisis was solved a couple of months back thanks, in part, to the decision by the Welsh Regions to side with the English and French clubs in calling for a new competition called the Rugby Champions Cup. It was a bold move to make as it defied the wishes of the Welsh Rugby Union who sought to preserve the (soon-to-be) old Heineken Cup. In hindsight, had they not done so there may never have been a resolution. The importance of their move did not go unnoticed and Regional Rugby Wales were universally praised for the “impressive” way they approached negotiations. In one fell swoop the regions went from being viewed as an amateur rabble to a well-honed, united, professional body. That shift in public perception has already brought rewards, as was seen yesterday with news that BT Sport have entered into a record-breaking deal with the four Welsh sides. Conversely, the outcome of the European Cup saga has left the Welsh Rugby Union looking out-of-touch, archaic, stubborn etc. Once, Roger Lewis was at the forefront of European negotiations, bringing the Heineken Cup final to Cardiff time and time again. It’ll be a long time before he and the WRU have such a say at Europe’s top-table. What this all means of course is that Regional Rugby Wales now enter these crucial weeks of Participation Agreement negotiations with the wind beneath their sails and, crucially, public opinion in their favour.
2. Moffett shouts it from the rooftops
Be honest. Who ever gave one thought about the role of WRU Chairman before David Moffett launched his public campaign for the top job? Neither did we. You have to give it to Moffett, he certainly has raised awareness of the problems facing many rugby clubs in the Principality since his return to Wales earlier this year…even if many commentators, this blog included, regarded his arrival with initial scepticism. His ‘One Wales’ manifesto contains many good ideas on how to improve the Welsh game (e.g. reforming the WRU governance structure and dual player contracts between the Union and its professional teams). It certainly has thrown the gauntlet down to David Pickering and his WRU Board colleagues. It could be argued that scrutiny of the WRU Board has been lacking in recent years (outside of the formalities of the Annual General Meeting). At the very least, Moffett’s campaign has rectified this.
At this point Red Rugby should state that it still does not regard David Moffett as the right man for election to the WRU Board. Yes, his efforts (i.e. manifestos, press releases and public debates such as the recent ‘Great Welsh Rugby Question Time’ in Cardiff) have raised awareness and shed light on important rugby issues. But he is seeking to become the WRU’s first ‘Independent Chairman’ and Mr. Moffett is far from independent. His history as CEO of both the Union and Regional Rugby Wales means that he does not have the impartial status required for the job. Furthermore, his actions on Twitter (the true location of ‘The Great Welsh Rugby Debate’) have led Red Rugby to believe he does not embody the qualities and character demanded of a Chairperson. We would argue that a Chair should set a good example, illustrate a high level of personal integrity and ethics, be open-minded and, above all, fair. Yet Mr. Moffett’s Twitter account is peppered with references to the cowardly nature of the Incumbent (or ‘Dai Chickering’ as Moffett refers to him). In one tweet, Moffett accused a respected female journalist of being in the pocket of the Welsh Rugby Union after she had questioned him. This tweet led to a string of misogynistic replies from his most loyal and tub-thumping followers. In simple terms, put David Moffett against Gerald Davies (another man being muted as a potential new Chairman) and there is no contest. Davies wins hands down.
Regardless of whether Moffett should be elected to the Board or not he has at least asked the pertinent questions running through the minds of many club members up and down the Principality. How David Pickering and the rest of the WRU hierarchy respond is key. So far, their response has been muted…restricted to statistic-laden press releases and the odd comment in unrelated interviews. The danger in not answering these questions is that the WRU may be faced with the embarrassment of an Emergency General Meeting…a step that could be prevented if the Union acts swiftly and thoroughly. In truth, it may already be too late to stop. David Moffett returns to Wales on Wednesday amid rumours that an EGM is imminent (a press conference is arranged for Thursday).
3. The ‘winning Wales’ bubble has burst
Wales expects. It’s population has always expected. But now that the national rugby team have enjoyed continued success, the Welsh rugby public expect a bit more. It’s no coincidence that the natives have become twitchy (if not revolutionary just yet) at a time when Warren Gatland’s side are at an impasse: competitive in Europe, not-so against the southern hemisphere giants. With a ‘Pool of Death’ to (ahem) look forward to in 2015, many Welsh fans fear the best days of this side are behind them. Now any good politician will tell you that if there’s trouble at home the best thing to do is to turn attention to foreign battles. This has been the case in Wales: as long as the national side have continued to climb the upward trajectory, no real effort or attention has been paid/made on the domestic game. But the distraction of victory on foreign soil is (for now) over. The spotlight is well and truly on matters closer to home and, in this regard, the game is not in rude health.
So what happens from here? Well, the position of Group CEO is not an elected one and so, regardless of an EGM or not, Roger Lewis is likely to stay in post for some time yet. His wings will have been clipped by recent events though. One of the most common accusations made against Mr. Lewis is that he refuses to listen to the concerns of clubs/professional teams and ploughs on regardless on a path of his own design. These last few months (and coming weeks) will remind Mr Lewis of his group’s chief purpose: “to promote, foster, encourage, control and improve the game of rugby throughout Wales”. His securing of some of the best coaches in the world has certainly helped the top end of the Welsh rugby pyramid, but now he will have to pay some overdue attention to its base. Elsewhere, the future looks increasingly dodgy for David Pickering and the WRU Board. Whether its an EGM or AGM, in the coming months they will have to answer those questions raised by the clubs and find satisfactory solutions. With an election looming, Board members (including Pickering) could find themselves out of a job if the clubs remain unsatisfied. And even if the Board do survive the suspected onslaught at an EGM/AGM, the Union itself may take a ‘once bitten, twice shy’ approach. A review of WRU governance has already been completed (but not made public) and further reforms should be expected.
One thing’s for sure though: to borrow the WRU marketing team’s own phrase, ‘Judgement Day is coming’.