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The plan to revolutionize Welsh rugby that was killed by the amateur clubs four years ago

The governance of Welsh rugby has been thrust into the spotlight in recent weeks, with the game here teetering on the edge of chaos.

Panic buttons have been smashed simultaneously all along the M4 corridor. All four pro teams have missed out on the URC play-offs and the men’s, women’s and under-20s sides all lost to Italy in this year’s Six Nations. Financially, the regions are treading water and, by their own admission in some cases, are unable to compete in the league.

Fans across the country are furious with the Union’s handling of the situation. We’re at the point where regional chairmen and head coaches are openly criticizing the game’s governing body. Professional rugby in Wales is a circus and those tasked with the running of it are largely unable to rectify things because of the WRU’s governance structure, which is decades past its sell-by date.

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There was a plan to prevent all this and it was put before the clubs four years ago. But the community clubs buried it and effectively neutralized the Professional Rugby Board (PRB), which is tasked with the running of the elite game. This is because the PRB can’t make a move without the WRU Board – which has a community game majority – approving it, which is crucial.

In 2017, then-WRU Chairman Gareth Davies and Chief Executive Martyn Phillips recognized that reform was way overdue. They attempted to make changes that would bring the organization up to speed with professionalism and make it agile enough to operate the way it needed to.

So they put a proposal together which involved;

  • Cutting the WRU Board from 20 to 12 members
  • bringing five appointed ‘area’ directors onto the board, instead of five ‘district’ council members elected by the clubs
  • Appointing an independent chairperson, with a casting vote, to the Board
  • Splitting the running of the game in Wales with the creation of the Professional Rugby Board and Community Game Board
  • Ring-fencing the community game’s £11.8 million funding, to smooth the changes over

A key part of the proposals involved doing away with the nine ‘districts’ and the creation of five ‘areas’ which would fall within the boundaries of the four professional regions plus one in Mid/North Wales.

The WRU would appoint a director, via an interview process which would assess the individual’s business experience and suitability for the role, to head up the five ‘areas’ and sit on the WRU Board. Those area directors would then head up boards of their own, which would consist of a rep from the regional side, a Premiership rep, a Championship rep and grassroots club reps from within their area.

They would be tasked with ensuring the player development pathway systems in their area were working and that regions were effectively reaching out to clubs in their area to drive affiliation and ultimately attendances. The hope was that with the game aligning at all levels, general interest and participation would rise.

As well as ring-fencing the funding, another condition of the proposals was that the pro-game also had to modernize, which led to the appointments of David Buttress at the Dragons, Simon Muderack at the Scarlets, Alun Jones at Cardiff and eventually Y11s takeover of the Ospreys, with Nick Garcia coming in as CEO. In short, the pro-game held up their end of the deal.

The proposals were passed in principle by the then-cumbersome 20-member Board and would be put forward at the AGM in 2018, where the clubs would decide.

In the six months that preceded the AGM, Phillips and Davies went on a roadshow around the nine districts in Wales to sell their vision. A source who was in attendance at one of the meetings said the WRU chiefs did not mince their words and issued stark warnings over the current structure.

It’s understood that the feedback was that it was too much change in one go and that a better course of action would be to make some of the changes at the 2018 AGM and then get the rest of the changes through at the next one. This is where the amateur game got cute.

What was agreed at the 2018 AGM was the cutting of the Board from 20 to 12 members, the splitting of the professional and community game and the ringfenced funding. Crucially, Davies and Phillips were not able to get through an independent chairperson or the five appointed area directors.

What they wanted was a 12-person board comprising of;

An independent chairperson, WRU CEO, WRU Finance Director, Chair of the Community Game Board, Chair of the Professional Rugby Board, Two non-executive directors and appointed area directors.

A board set up in this way would be far more conducive to change in the professional game and be more likely to pass proposals that the PRB put forward, given that it would not be riddled with allegiances to the community game.

What we ended up with in 2018, and still have today, is a board comprising of;

WRU CEO, three independent directors (including Chair of the Professional Rugby Board), Chair of the Community Game Board (Rob Butcher, the WRU Chairman), two national council members (both elected by clubs) and five district council members (all elected by clubs).

Announcing the governance change, the WRU trumpeted the approval of ‘proposals to modernize the governance structures of the game and revolutionize rugby in Wales for generations to come’. In truth, they revolutionized nothing.

Out of the 12 members on the WRU Board, eight of them were elected by the community clubs. That means any move the PRB wants to make still has to be signed off by a board that has a majority of members elected into roles by the amateur game. That is a problem and is why the pro game is effectively in a state of paralysis, unable to quickly make changes it needs in order to recover from the current situation.

Weren’t Davies and Phillips supposed to come back and complete their changes at the next AGM? Get their independent chair and do away with the nine districts?

They were. But before they could, the community clubs – who will protect their right to call an Emergency General Meeting, which requires just 32 clubs, at all costs – ousted Davies from his role as chairman and replaced him with Rob Butcher. Seeing the situation for what it was, Phillips also left his post as CEO.

Former WRU chairman Gareth Davies

The community game had their funding ring-fenced, installed a chairman who has done little to dispel his reputation as simply a grassroots man and maintained their control on the WRU Board. Taking the money and getting rid of Davies, refusing to allow the kind of reform befitting of an almost £100 million business was a display of flagrant self-interest from the clubs and the floundering pro game is paying the price.

What Welsh rugby is also left with is a chairman, CEO, Commercial Director and Finance Director who have previously never held an equivalent role before. So in the midst of an all-out crisis, they have little practical experience to fall back on.

Many in Welsh rugby ponder how the game here might look like we had thrown our lot in with the English league structure when the opportunity presented itself two decades ago. It is viewed as a missed opportunity that is still rolled to this day.

Similarly, how different might the outlook be for the game in Wales had things turned out differently in 2018.


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