Category Archives: Politics

As the WRU begins to take ownership of the issues facing Welsh rugby, so too must the wider public

It has been a fascinating time in Welsh rugby since Martyn Phillips assumed the role of Welsh Rugby Union (WRU) Chief Executive Officer in the autumn of 2015.

At a glance, the opportunity to become the second most influential person in Welsh rugby’s hierarchy would be of huge attraction to any aspirational businessperson.

In reality, the role of Chief Executive Officer has become the ultimate poisoned chalice of Welsh rugby, due to the legacy left behind by Phillips’ predecessor, Roger Lewis.

So it is hugely impressive to see the start Phillips has made to life at the WRU. His engaging and collaborative approach is clearly resonating with a rugby public who urgently needed an operational figurehead to embrace their very real concerns for the game.

It is a fantastic transformation from what Welsh rugby had become accustomed to under the reign of Roger Lewis and his supporting cast of former Chairman, David Pickering, and former Head of Communications, John Williams.

It was not too long ago that in clubhouses throughout the country, the Welsh rugby public discussed the many issues surrounding the sport with a sense of futility.

But credible signs are emerging that the longstanding issues facing Welsh rugby are not only being acknowledged by the WRU, but are finally being addressed.

One-by-one, leading figures representing Pro Rugby Wales, Cardiff Blues, Newport Gwent Dragons, Ospreys and Scarlets, have all remarked how their relationship with the WRU is now far more productive.

Teams competing in the top two divisions of Welsh club rugby – the Principality Premiership and SSE SWALEC Championship – have had lengthy strategic meetings with the WRU to ascertain the fundamental issues facing club rugby with a view to formulating a solution.

This was totally unheard of during the Roger Lewis era. So long as Lewis, Pickering and Williams had success on the National stage and supposed financial efficiency to rely on, the central problems within the game could be kicked down the road like the proverbial can.

The negative consequences of this managerial approach are proving enormous.

As a brand, the WRU is completely burned. As the organisation begins to proactively survey the damage, I fear the findings will unearth the true stain left on Welsh rugby, which will take years to overcome.

To many, the WRU brand does not reflect the amazing things that happen within professional entities and clubs up and down Wales on a daily basis. It does not reflect how Welsh rugby has an unshakable ability to bring communities together and forge close bonds between rival clubs.

One could argue that the WRU brand more represents the polarising figure of Roger Lewis and all that went wrong with Welsh rugby under his leadership.

Lewis has since moved on to further his political career at Cardiff Airport, but his legacy is that the Welsh rugby public has lost trust in the WRU – albeit through no fault of the many dedicated staff that presently work for the organisation.

The end result is tragic. Welsh rugby has lost an unquantifiable number of advocates, yet as this was never deemed to be a critical issue until now, we have little idea of who has left the game, why they have left the game and what – if anything – could be done to bring them back to the game.

Without such basic insight, Welsh rugby simply cannot learn and evolve.

That leaves the new-and-improved WRU management structure with the unenviable task of formulating a long-term strategy that can sustain current Welsh rugby advocates, facilitate the growth of emerging markets and re-integrate lapsed supporters with the new direction.

Under the guidance of Phillips and Chairman, Gareth Davies, some of the most critical work has already been undertaken.

The pair has worked tirelessly to galvanise the Welsh rugby fraternity and they will have generated enormous insight from engaging with those operating in all facets of the game.

This insight has been complimented by the WRU commissioning an independent market research organisation to have even deeper conversations with various stakeholders of Welsh rugby, to fully grasp the enormity of what is required to repair the game.

Having personally been invited by the WRU to participate in the research, I can vouch for how professional and refreshingly impartial the process was.

For the first time in Welsh rugby history, it seems that we are starting to answer the fundamental questions of who the audiences are and what they are seeking from the sport.

Undertaking this analysis from the outset will no doubt facilitate the formulation of a structured and clearly defined market position for the whole of Welsh rugby, and not a minute too soon.

With the benefit of hindsight, it is plain to see where Welsh rugby has gone so wrong over the last thirteen years.

The professional tier of Welsh rugby consists of four hugely contentious regional teams that have demonstrated little understanding of what they are and who they aim to serve.

Why David Moffett formed the regions has been well documented. We know that they were created at a time when the WRU faced enormous financial difficulties. Resources were being spread far too thinly to sustain the array of professional clubs that had horrendously failed to adapt to the birth of professional rugby.

It was perhaps inevitable that some of the most storied clubs in Welsh rugby history were going to be cast aside unless Moffett formulated the new entities as regional brands.

Fast-forward thirteen years and Regional Rugby has largely been considered a failure. It is simply impossible to be all things to all people and in trying to do so, no one clear segment of the Welsh rugby public has been provided an experience in totality.

The fear of not appearing all-inclusive to the Welsh rugby public as opposed to analysing the facts of who the consumer base is and how they choose to consume rugby has prevented Welsh rugby from advancing its proposition.

Pro Rugby Wales made some small effort to distance itself from the negative connotations attached to the regional label by ditching its old Regional Rugby Wales moniker in 2014, but as the Ospreys’ persist with their ‘One True Region’ slogan, the ambiguity of the purpose of professional rugby in Wales remains rife.

Two key arguments have been bandied around for years within Welsh rugby circles and instead of trying to bury the issues, Welsh rugby must accept that they point to what the future of Welsh rugby should look like.

The first argument is to bring an end to the pretence of regionalism. For instance, some want Newport Gwent Dragons to reflect Newport rugby being played at its rightful home of Rodney Parade.

The second argument is that Welsh rugby must enhance the concept of regionalism. Some want their region to aid their club so that it can rekindle past glories. The problem with this is that whilst many cry out for change, they have struggled to identify what exactly can be done to make this feasible.

These passionate arguments often become heated and have created huge tensions between portions of Welsh rugby supporters. That is not what Welsh rugby should be about.

Welsh rugby rivalry should be about what happens on the field between two teams and should be a celebration of two groups of supporters coming together to celebrate their rivalry with civility. That is what makes rugby the brilliant sport it is.

Instead, the divisions formed between regional supporters, club supporters and lapsed supporters confirm that the current Welsh rugby structure is simply unsustainable.

If we are to make Welsh rugby great again, we must have a cultural adjustment in how we approach the game.

We must learn to accept that Welsh rugby has made many critical errors since the advent of Regional Rugby.

The administrators, employees, journalists and pundits of Welsh rugby must all part with their entrenched cronyism and self-interest, to have honest discussions about what the future of Welsh rugby should look like.

It is vital to formulate a clear positional strategy for professional, semi-professional and amateur rugby in Wales that will make the game sustainable for the next sixty years, not six months.

If we take on board the insights of the Welsh rugby public, we might learn that there is a desire for the professional game to become fundamentally separated from the semi-professional and amateur game in Wales.

The unwritten obligation for the Cardiff Blues, Newport Gwent Dragons, Ospreys and Scarlets to embrace all clubs within their respective regions is in no doubt restricting their potential to maximise relationships with existing and new supporters.

There are over 300 clubs in Wales and every one of them has an individual set of behaviours and objectives. To expect four heavily under resourced professional entities to forge relationships with each individual club is unrealistic and infeasible.

It is an impossible position that we cannot expect them to be placed in any longer.

We need to allow the four Pro Rugby Wales entities to formulate standalone brands that resonate with a specific group of people, who have an appetite for professional rugby.

For this to be successful, Welsh rugby must also address the resentment hardened club rugby supporters hold towards their teams eroding at the expense of Regional Rugby for over a decade.

The Principality Premiership and SWALEC Championship must be repositioned as an alternative option to the proposition of professional rugby.

The WRU has made an enormous error in proclaiming that anything below the professional tier of Welsh rugby has the sole purpose of developing tomorrow’s rugby superstars.

Instead, the unique proposition of Welsh club rugby is that it should be a celebration of the rivalries that exist between the foremost historical clubs in Welsh rugby history. It enables ordinary men and women to achieve something special on any given Saturday, in a way that professional rugby cannot.

The Principality Premiership and SWALEC Championship can of course become a breeding ground for developing tomorrow’s rugby superstar, but we must do so in the knowledge that club rugby supporters and administrators first and foremost attend fixtures to see their club win and achieve its goals.

And why should we limit ourselves to just developing tomorrow’s rugby player? There is huge potential to combat the massive volunteer drain facing the game by developing tomorrow’s Chief Executive Officer or Financial Controller, by offering accredited qualifications to students who work within Welsh clubs across the country.

Put simply, we need to develop a clearly positioned semi-professional and amateur proposition for the consumer to consider that will enable this portion of the game to grow once again.

I want semi-professional and amateur rugby to be a thorn in the side of professional rugby in Wales. I want professional rugby to be a thorn in our side. I want us to have that healthy competition that makes every administrator in Wales work harder to deliver the best experience possible to the Welsh rugby public.

If we can develop a strategy that offers vibrancy and variety to the Welsh rugby public, we must then trust the consumer to make an informed decision on how they wish to spend their Saturday afternoon.

We are all competitors, but we can work in unison to make Welsh rugby great again as friendly rivals.

Is that not better than losing even more people to Welsh rugby by continuing with the pretence that the current structures are sound?

I have been one of the most vocal critics of the WRU over the previous three years, but I also consider myself to be an objective person that forms opinions based on merit.

I strongly consider that Martyn Phillips, Gareth Davies and the reinvigorated WRU are doing what they can to rejuvenate the game. It is now up to you to do the same.

Why not attend your old club once again?

Why not attend a Pro Rugby Wales fixture and try to build a new legacy with your family?

Why not use that taste of excitement you encounter when watching Wales play at the Principality Stadium as a platform to support your local rugby club?

We must put all of our differences aside and ask ourselves one very simple question.

What can WE do for Welsh rugby?

The future of our sport is truly in your hands.

Ben Jeffreys is the Chief Executive Officer of Pontypool RFC.

Follow Ben at @BenJeffreys on Twitter.