Why the sale of Newport Gwent Dragons must result in a massive culture change within Welsh rugby
Newport Gwent Dragons’ Board of Directors today outlined what they referred to as ‘radical plans’ to establish itself as a ‘fully independent region’ by attracting fresh investment and ownership.
It is the latest twist and turn in what has been the most arduous of journeys for professional rugby in Gwent.
Political differences aside, one must be enormously grateful for what Tony Brown, Martyn Hazell and Will Godfrey have contributed to Welsh rugby, both in terms of capital investment and time.
But as Hazell so magnanimously conceded today, ‘it is time for new blood and a new board.’
The Welsh rugby fraternity has since reignited a thirteen-year-old argument over what is wrong with Newport Gwent Dragons and what must be done to fix the failing entity.
As a business proposition, Newport Gwent Dragons will be an enormously difficult sell to any serious investor.
Operationally, the business lacks the maturity and infrastructure to serve as a mouth-watering 7-day-a-week cash cow to prop up its core rugby operation.
Culturally, it has little appreciation for the fundamentals required to formulate a crystal clear offering for which an audience can embrace with clarity.
These failings are entirely attributable to the very Board of Directors now entrusted with determining who is most capable of turning Newport Gwent Dragons into a successful enterprise.
Based on today’s press conference alone, one must ask whether those at the helm of the Rodney Parade-based outfit are best placed to be making this decision in isolation.
Assuming that today’s media blitz was actioned to salivate the mouths of potential investors, one must ask why Martyn Hazell chose to forfeit that the ethos of Newport Gwent Dragons’ branding has been “a mishmash from day one”.
This ‘shoot from the hip’ mentality is wholly indicative of the lack of strategic focus Welsh rugby has placed into clarifying what professional rugby is and whom it serves.
Welsh rugby remains a deeply divided arena, resulting in many arguing less about what happens on the field and more about what transpires off it. As unpleasant as this is, the Welsh rugby public are wholly right to raise their frustrations.
It has seemingly escaped the minds of Welsh rugby strategists that the concept of Regional Rugby was developed out of economic necessity, not consumer demand.
Despite there being no existence of any sound evidence to suggest that this strategy should remain in effect, the concept of Regional Rugby has continued to perpetuate without any clear rationale.
Fast-forward thirteen years and with Welsh rugby in a far more secure position financially, there is no logical explanation as to why we should not initiate the process of re-evaluating the entire structural framework of Welsh rugby for the benefit of the supporter.
I have been involved in Welsh rugby for just three short years, yet it has become abundantly clear to me why we have not sought to solve this very complex business problem.
Far too many people within the sport are fixated on self-preservation and are utterly afraid of making mistakes. People can be so very complacent and so long as their interests remain unblemished, they are satisfied with accepting the status quo.
This cultural issue is having a negative effect on every aspect of our game, whether that be the professional, semi-professional or amateur sector. No one segment of Welsh rugby is immune from it.
This attitude is simply not going to cut it anymore. The Welsh rugby public are intelligent people and if reasonable progress is not made to embrace their concerns, we are going to lose them forever.
Newport Gwent Dragons’ Chief Executive Officer, Stuart Davies, is entirely wrong to glibly remark that ‘the whole name thing has surfaced again’ as though it is the unpopular relative you feel obliged to invite to Christmas Dinner every year.
Comments like that are in fact rather telling as to the failing mind-set that exists within professional rugby in Wales.
In his first interview since assuming the role of Chief Executive Officer, Davies made it abundantly clear that his ambition was to heighten the appeal of Newport Gwent Dragons as a region, despite having no business rationale for doing so.
Travelling down the proverbial blind alley as Davies has is indicative of what is holding Welsh rugby back from being a harmonious and successful environment.
We have absolutely zero idea as to what the Welsh rugby public desires from its sporting entities and until we do, we will continue to reside in a state of mediocrity.
The Welsh Rugby Union (WRU) recently initiated the process of seeking to understand who its various stakeholders are and what drives them to be so inherently passionate about Welsh rugby. For the first time in living memory, the WRU is doing the right thing to quite literally ‘shape our game’.
Martyn Phillips and Gareth Davies deserve enormous credit for taking such a positive step.
But it is not enough. As I outlined in a previous article, we need to ask many more questions to many more people and make some brave decisions to safeguard the future of Welsh rugby.
Welsh rugby simply cannot be all things to all people. By trying to appease everyone over the last thirteen years, we have actually offered very little to very few.
This is not just a Newport Gwent Dragons issue. It is a Welsh rugby issue.
The WRU and Pro Rugby Wales (PRW) must accept that today’s developments at Rodney Parade are no coincidence. They are in fact a direct result of the intrinsically flawed strategy for professional rugby in Wales.
Today’s announcement must serve as the catalyst that forces Welsh rugby to embrace some much needed home truths from the very people it has failed for so long.
It is almost impossible to expect four completely independent professional entities to abide by the same ‘Regional’ business strategy. What works for the Ospreys has very clearly not worked for Newport Gwent Dragons.
Only by allowing each professional team to formulate its own strategy based on an extensive period of market consultation can we identify what purpose professional rugby in Wales serves the rugby public.
Until we obtain this feedback, Welsh professional rugby will continue to exist, but not flourish.
Only when we have a complete understanding of what drives the various stakeholders of Welsh rugby can we truly develop a strategy that offers vibrancy and variety to the Welsh rugby public.
The Welsh rugby public is calling for change and we are running out of time to deliver it.
Ben Jeffreys is the Chief Executive Officer of Pontypool RFC.
Follow Ben at @BenJeffreys on Twitter.