When the last Chief Executive was pushed out of power there was a chance, a hope, a light at the end of the tunnel for professional and community rugby in Wales. There was a glimmer that the WRU would finally become a professional organisation that understood its customers, understood its market and could push rugby forward in Wales.
Alas, it hasn’t happened and the hope that it “could” happen is now weaker with each week. Instead, what we have is more of the same at the top end of the game and excuses about “taking time” with the governance at all levels.
The first major problem with the WRU is its make up. The controlling influence through the Districts puts men (19 men and only 1 woman) in charge whose primary concern is mileage expenses for community clubs or getting a little cash for a new roof on the clubhouse. In turn, these men have a huge influence over the professional game and its budget, despite having zero experience of running a professional sports team.
Martyn Phillips has tried to change this, despite having zero experience himself of running a professional sports business. In his defence, he has tried to change the governance structure to split the running of the community game from the professional game (as is desperately needed) but, guess what, he couldn’t get it beyond those 19 men with no experience of running a professional sports team.
Next, Phillips realises that the pro teams in Wales are vastly underpaid for the services they deliver to the WRU and to the National Team. Phillips knows this because he can see what the IRFU, RFU, SRU and FFR pay for exactly the same services and he knows the underpayment is causing our pro teams to be uncompetitive. The Pro Teams are the window into the game for the next generation as they are the ones on the TV most during the year. A successful bunch of pro teams will ensure more youngsters entering the game, which benefits all levels throughout the game.
But, guess what, those 19 blokes wouldn’t allow the payments to go up to match the other unions without asking for yet more in return, thus maintaining the imbalance between payments and services provided. Therefore, the plan Phillips had hatched has been ditched because of its unfairness and imbalance.
Now we have the complete shambles in Newport whereby the WRU is seeking to pay (net) £2.9m for 9 acres of land in Newport. They are asking Newport RFC shareholders (who own the land) to sell it to them for that price so that “Dragons” and Newport RFC can continue to trade. But here’s the issue: NOBODY has paid for a professional valuation on the land so nobody knows what it’s worth. The Directors of Newport RFC ltd claimed recently (in their published accounts) that it is worth £6.5m, but no valuation was made in order to get to that figure despite it being their legal requirement to do so.
So the WRU are bidding on a property that they haven’t told the owners what it’s worth. Nice, eh? The reason there has been no valuation, according to Stuart Davies (CEO of Newport RFC and Dragons) is that nobody can afford the £10,000 fee it would cost for the valuation. It’s probably worth noting at this stage that the WRU own 50% of the Dragons already.
Therefore, we have a WRU board unwilling to release funds to support our professional game on fair terms but, seemingly, willing to pay £2.9m for a piece of land in Newport. Why? Because it’s obviously worth significantly more than £2.9m.
But – and here is the crunch – the WRU will give NO guarantee of any future for either of the rugby teams presently playing at Rodney Parade. None. No guarantee at all. It could all close by the end of next season. Finished.
This is where Phillips is clearly again struggling in his role. He went public to note his Masters’ viewpoint that “we are regions, not super clubs” yet so sure is he of the business strength of “Regions” as the model for pro rugby in Wales that he refuses to guarantee even one year of trading for such a region. He also claimed branding wasn’t important, thus fundamentally missing a huge reason why supporters follow a team and why sponsors back sports teams.
Think on that – he is pushing the regional dogma yet so confident is he in its business model that he won’t guarantee any future for “Dragons”. He claims branding is not important for team names yet the best sports teams in the world value their brands in the billions of dollars. His words are so far off the required mark as to be questionable in their competence.
So why is all of this contradictory nonsense happening? Because of those 19 men and one woman. They are the block on the progression of the game in Wales, they are the link to the amateur era where their influence was required and necessary. They are out of their depth in a professional sport, unwieldy, imbalanced, inexperienced, arrogant and misplaced. Phillips just has to do their bidding whilst the rest of us are told that turning around the WRU will take time.
Well, as Newport RFC and Dragons fans will testify, the game doesn’t have time. Gareth Davies stands for re-election this year as Chairman and, if he gets in again, he has only one option to professionalise the WRU: nuclear. He has to clear out that Board and the WRU has to become fit for a professional game because, as we can see in all of its dealings so far, it’s far from good enough.