It was announced today that Roger Lewis, the WRU Group Chief Executive, will leave his post in October. Lewis, who has held Welsh rugby’s top job since 2006 said of his resignation, “The time is now right for me to step down after a remarkable period at the helm of the Welsh Rugby Union. It has been a fantastic and memorable journey both on and off the pitch and I would like to thank the Board of the WRU for their backing during some challenging times and for my colleagues who have been unstinting in their support for me both personally and professionally.”
During his tenure, the Welsh Rugby Union has registered record levels of turnover and negotiated a significant reduction of its historic Millennium Stadium debt. On the field, Wales have won three Six Nations titles (two of them Grand Slams) and were two points away from reaching a Rugby World Cup final. Lewis himself has been credited for his role in attracting major sporting events to Cardiff, including London 2012 Olympic football matches, Heineken Cup finals and Rugby World Cup matches in both 2007 and 2015. Yet, in recent times, Roger Lewis has become synonymous with the WRU v Regions row that blighted Welsh rugby for most of 2013 and 2014. Before that argument was solved last August, his detractors claimed he was too focused on the international game in Wales to the detriment of regional and club rugby. While the national side have thrived, so the argument went, all tiers underneath have struggled. In response, Roger Lewis argued that financial success was bred from the top down in Wales as the national team is the nation’s most profitable product. Whether you agree with that sentiment or not will probably determine how you view his time in charge of the WRU. The legacy debate has already started and is likely to rage for some time yet.
News of Lewis’ departure will come as a surprise to many (this blog included). Having survived the tormentous climax of the whole WRU v Regions saga (and an Emergency General Meeting to boot), it was our opinion that Lewis would be around for some time yet. That climax saw David Pickering, former Chairman and close ally of Lewis, voted off the WRU Board. Elected in his place was Newport Gwent Dragons supremo Gareth Davies – the man seen as chief opponent to the WRU’s (and Lewis’) standpoint. Whether this turn of events has had any bearing on Lewis’ decision to leave remains to be seen.
In the meantime, questions now arise over the long-term future of Warren Gatland as Head Coach. Hiring Gatland in 2007 is arguably Lewis’ greatest achievement to date. Under his stewardship, Wales have gone from a side knocked out by Fiji in the 2007 Rugby World Cup to the most successful Welsh team since the 1970s. The New Zealander is contracted to the WRU until 2019 but has admitted today that Roger Lewis’ departure will probably affect his future with Wales, such is the nature of their close, working relationship. With a ‘pool of death’ on the horizon (and no guarantee that Wales will qualify for the World Cup quarter-finals) Gatland’s tenure may also end this October. If that happens, the WRU will have seen its Chief Executive, Chair and Head Coach depart in just over the course of the year. While it is too soon to declare the end of the third ‘golden era’ of Welsh rugby, many will now be preparing for it.