Supported by a meticulously orchestrated media blitz, today marks the final day of Roger Lewis’ tenure as Chief Executive Officer of the Welsh Rugby Union, officially bringing an end to the ‘Pickering-Lewis’ era that arguably polarised opinion like no other managerial partnership in Welsh sporting history.
And if you read Rugby Editor of the Western Mail, Delme Parfitt’s celebratory opinion piece on Mr Lewis yesterday and are generally quite passive to the political landscape of Welsh rugby, you would be forgiven for being unsure as to why so many people found Mr Parfitt’s article so disagreeable and Mr Lewis to be such a controversial figure.
What you may not have noticed however was how Mr Parfitt and one particular colleague of his conducted themselves on social media prior to and immediately after the release of the opinion piece in question.
Having openly admitted that he had not yet met the new Chief Executive Officer of the WRU, Martyn Phillips, despite having the opportunity to do so, Parfitt still deemed it appropriate to proclaim that Phillips will be “doomed” if he “thinks he has to go out of his way to be different to Lewis.”
After the opinion piece was released, Mr Parfitt’s Western Mail colleague, Andy Howell announced that the article was a “terrific piece on the tenure of Roger Lewis” and would “get the ultras going”.
Whilst I have absolutely no grievance with Mr Parfitt and Mr Howell having a right to an opinion – one which I strongly disagree with in this instance – I considered it exceptionally unfair to Mr Phillips and found the general behaviour of two of the most senior journalists for the national newspaper of Wales to be completely unbecoming of what is expected of professional media representatives.
This is just one example of how I personally consider there to have been a continuous lack of warranted scrutiny of the key figures within the WRU by publications that the wider public rely on to deliver a fair, balanced and realistic perspective of the complete Welsh rugby landscape.
It is a world that I have had significant first-hand experience of over the course of the past eighteen months.
You may recall that alongside a small number of like-minded individuals, I placed a considerable amount of emphasis conveying what I deemed to be the true reality faced by many working at the coalface of Welsh rugby, who otherwise felt too afraid or uncomfortable with challenging the WRU establishment head on.
At every juncture I risked jeopardising my own position within Welsh rugby, but having experienced the sport at both professional and semi-professional levels, I simply could not tolerate what I was encountering and decided to provide a different perspective to the public.
During that time, my efforts achieved widespread airtime and column inches through BBC Wales Today, BBC Saturday Sportsday, BBC Radio Wales, ITV Wales, IWRTV, The Rugby Paper – all the way to gaining the attention of Al Jazeera English along the way!
Suddenly, Pontypool Park was gaining visitors from across the country wanting to hear the point of view of an unknown, non-influential 26-year-old from Newport. This was not because I was being a bombastic sensationalist, but because there was an acceptance that massive problems existed at the top of the Welsh rugby pyramid that were seeping all the way down to the grassroots sector and it showed no signs of abating.
Combine this pressure with the on-going battle the WRU faced with Pro Rugby Wales, Roger Lewis and David Pickering were rapidly losing control. They were not the formidable powerhouses who would have previously remained unchallenged by the Welsh rugby fraternity. Something had most certainly changed.
Even so, one may argue that there was still a slim opportunity for the Lewis-Pickering led WRU to build bridges and return the focus to establishing solutions for the next generation of Welsh rugby enthusiasts. Instead – at least in my opinion – it placed far too much emphasis on conveying that it still held total control in every facet of the game. One meticulously orchestrated response at a time, the WRU unrelentingly tried to assert its power over all of its publics.
Even when faced with the prospect of losing its entire primary board through a hastily arranged EGM led by former WRU Chief Executive Officer, David Moffett, the WRU showed no signs of relaxing its defiant tone, with then-Chairman David Pickering urging attendees to “join together to make sure the mischief makers do not have their way or their day.” To this day, I cannot decipher whether Mr Pickering was speaking exclusively to Mr Moffett and his associates, or to those who simply disagreed with the WRU’s management approach to Welsh rugby.
Fast-forward to today, and we all know the reality. David Pickering is no longer the Chairman and Roger Lewis is no longer the Chief Executive Officer of the WRU. Ultimately, the power evaporated and influential members of the Welsh rugby public made their message abundantly clear: change was and still is needed.
Ultimately, all the glamorous sound bytes listed by Mr Parfitt in his opinion piece regarding debt reduction and funding was simply not enough for the Welsh rugby public to maintain faith in Mr Pickering, and inevitably, Mr Lewis. Funding in isolation means nothing. There has to be a strategy, there has to be a purpose, and above all else – everything has to be achieved through collaboration and mutual respect. I personally felt that all of these elements had been lacking from the WRU beyond any form of repair.
So when media representatives such as Mr Parfitt “hope the new WRU CEO Martyn Phillips becomes as powerful as Roger Lewis,” I cannot help but feel he is measuring success based fundamentally on power, which is in my view, completely the wrong approach.
In the current Welsh rugby climate that I experience on a daily basis, I do not feel that the WRU will benefit from a leadership that emphasises being uncompromisingly powerful. I instead believe many would agree that what the WRU needs is a Chairman and Chief Executive Officer that operates with the shared belief that Welsh rugby can only succeed over the next twenty years if each fragment of the game works to a series of objectives derived from a clear strategy that emanates from collaboration and mutual respect.
We realistically cannot adjust what has already gone wrong. The professional element of Welsh rugby is flawed – fundamentally so, the semi-professional game needs to find its own unique selling point to re-attract a market that is in decline and the amateur game is facing a participation crisis never before experienced in Wales.
These are all massive problems that will undoubtedly challenge the landscape of rugby in Wales for years to come, but we have to look forward and find solutions, together as one, with a leadership that forms true relationships along the way.
I strongly believe that the WRU has the right combination in Chairman, Gareth Davies and Chief Executive Officer, Martyn Phillips.
I had the pleasure of working for Mr Davies for six months at Newport Gwent Dragons and he is a fair and honest man who understands the realities and aspirations within Wales. As soon as he was appointed, I sensed that finally, rugby in Wales would truly enter the professional world.
I also had the opportunity to spend a number of hours with Mr Phillips, who was so kind as to meet me last month. Not only did he listen to my views, he took them forward and followed up with tangible progress as promised some weeks later.
It is early days, but when I think of these two individuals, I do not think of powerhouses. I think of collaborators and contributors and that gives me confidence.
The pair will undoubtedly face fresh scrutiny of their own, but my overriding feeling is that this must be done for the right reasons and conducted in a fair and objective manner. I am sure that both the Chairman and Chief Executive Officer will embrace this, if early indications are to be used as a measuring guide.
The future of Welsh rugby has the potential to be very bright indeed, but every stakeholder in the sport has to take responsibility. There are no excuses to not get involved. The future is in your hands; please do not underestimate your own personal responsibility and let us once and for all move Welsh rugby forward.
Ben Jeffreys, CEO, Pontypool RFC
Note from the editor:
Here’s Delme’s reaction to this article tonight: