Minutes of the Joint Supporters Group meeting with the Welsh Rugby Union 16th December 2013

Minutes of the Joint Supporters Group meeting with the Welsh Rugby Union
Monday 16th December
Millennium Stadium, 5pm

Attendees:
Jon Sheppard and Joe Crocker from FoNR
Annette Thomas and Mike Phippen from OSC
Dorian Davies, Barrie Jones and Neil Bathgate from CRYS 16
Sarah Hopkins, Catherine Smart and Sue Barter from CBSC
Roger Lewis, David Pickering, Warren Gatland and Steve Phillips from WRU

Minutes:

All present introduced themselves to each other.
RL Welcomed everyone to the Millennium Stadium, and thanked them all for coming.
RL said that he could not disclose any information that he would deem confidential and that the previous request for a meeting had been declined as the WRU felt it inappropriate as discussions were on-going at that time.

NB said that the group felt now was the time to discuss the situation with the Regions and the WRU as we are now six months further down the line since the original meeting request.

RL stated that it is rugby that comes first not vested “business” interests.

SH thanked the WRU representatives for the meeting us this evening and explained that she had been asked to lead the meeting from the supporters perspective, then read an introductory statement prepared by the supporters which would be followed by some key questions and read as follows:
Cardiff Blues Supporters’ Club CRYS 16 Friends of Newport Rugby Ospreys Supporters’ Club
The reason we requested a meeting earlier this year was because the crossroads we currently find ourselves at has been inevitable for some time and we wanted to air supporters’ views to the Union whilst there was still time for them to be considered but what’s happened has happened, and we need to move forward. and whilst late in the day, we are pleased to be able to represent the views of those who support regional, club and mini rugby week in week out in Wales.

We assume you have seen our joint statement as that is what prompted the meeting this evening so we don’t propose to read through that but needless to say – we are extremely concerned that the WRU is not acting in the best interests of the game as is often stated. We accept that Team Wales has been successful over recent years, but that is just one aspect of the game in Wales. We strongly feel that the time has come to make decisions that will protect the future of the game in our country or the current Welsh Rugby Union regime will forever be known as those that to all intents and purposes signed the death warrant of professional rugby in Wales.

We want to see a sustainable, professional Regional Structure, working with and developing players for teamTeam Wales.. and retaining our best players within our regions.

We are investors in the game that invest more than money – we invest considerable time in supporting our teams and the fact that you have threatened to take them away from us if they ‘don’t play ball’ is completely unacceptable to us. This is our leisure time, our family time that you are impacting ….

She went on to say that we are mandated as a group to represent our members and a supporter group of 15,000 Season Ticket Holders and many more match day attendees.

RL said that he absolutely refuted the comments that (a) the WRU are not acting in the best interests of the game stating “throughout the whole history of rugby we have acted in its best interest…..it has been our mantra”.” and (b) signed the death warrant of professional rugby in Wales.

RL said that he has not seen the statement which was referred to and SH explained that it was released to members and other supporters at the end of the previous week. RL asked if it has been sent directly to the WRU and she said that it had not, but that she had received a phone call from the WRU press team that day and had assumed that this was why the meeting with RL had been called. RL reconfirmed that he had not seen the statement.

RL asked whether the supporters’ groups had met with Regional Chairmen and Chief Executives. All confirmed that there is regular contact.

RL explained that the Regions have until 31/12/13 to “elect to continue or not” with the Participation Agreement. He stated that the Regions had signed in effect a 10 year contract in 2009 and that there was a break clause in at the end of 2013 (after the 1st 5 Years) solely for the option of the Regions and they alone could elect to continue with the PA from 1 July 2014 or not.

SP advised that the WRU’s business plan was, and always has been, based on the 10 year Participation Agreement signed in 2009 and changing the terms wasn’t an option.
In response to why the star players are leaving Wales, it was stated that the WRU had offered to sign the players that were coming out of contract whilst there was uncertainty regarding the European competitions that would be played in, then assign them back to the relevant Regions (with no conditions attached), but the Regions had refused this.

RL explained the make up and constitution of the WRU, referencing 320 member clubs and our 40,000 playing members etc, but SH confirmed that supporters were already aware of this. These 320 clubs who ultimately control all of Welsh rugby, and make up the WRU. RL said also that the Regions had not always sent representatives to WRU AGMs and other meetings with the Clubs.

The regions have had representation in the Rabo Direct League and on the ERC Committee for many years, up to Stuart Gallacher’s recent resignation last week and that they really still should have a representative there.

NB questioned whether if RL felt there was real value in them attending the WRU AGMs and meetings and if RL had directly communicated this to them and RL advised that he felt there was value in the Regions attending the meeting but he hadn’t directly communicated this to them as they are aware of the meetings and that they are able to attend. The WRU had written to the Regions and all Member clubs inviting them to the AGM, as they have done every year.

RL went on to say that the latest RRW statement (regarding, amongst others, the TV revenues) was, at a minimum, misleading. and contained confidential information which should not have been disclosed. He stated that it was not the WRU or himself that negotiated TV deals but Celtic League Ltd and ERC Ltd, of which the Regions had been party to. There were further meetings later this week to discuss ERC payments. The existing agreements had been agreed to by the Regions, they have never previously raised the points set out in their statement at an ERC Board meeting and it wasn’t as simple as them just walking away.

In response to the information contained in the RRW statement, when asked further about the alleged unequal distribution of funds which was in favour of Scotland and Italy on a per team basis in Europe – RL confirmed that the funding received was not equal and that the WRU were aware of this issue and that the Regions had always accepted and agreed to them.
However, neither was it favourable to the English and French clubs in Europe as it applied to Wales on the same basis but it was very much in favour of Wales in the Rabo League.

SH asked RL to clarify what the Regions were being asked to participate in under the Participation Agreement and he stated that it was (as currently stood) a European competition which was supported by the five participating nations and the Rabo League, which he felt offered the financial stability that the regions were looking for. He said that further discussions were taking place on 20th December where they hoped that the English clubs would reconsider and rejoin the competition, making it the six nations again.

NB asked whether the WRU would consider extending the deadline for the PA until the regions knew exactly what the situation was in Europe and RL confirmed they were hopeful that this would be resolved next week but ultimately as there is a commitment from 5 unions to provide teams for the competition there wouldn’t be an option to extend the deadline for the PA until a more detailed make up of the teams competing is known.

As to WRU income, BJ asked why there was seemingly no prospect of income growing over the coming years with the PA being only index linked and it was stated that this was unknown. SP replied that the WRU income had grown significantly over the last six years which had allowed the player release monies in 2008 to be increased from £3.6m to £6.6m today; as to further similar growth, it was stated that this was unlikely at the present time.

AT referred to the TV deal that had been announced by the Aviva Premiership with BT Sport and stated that it would seem financially beneficial to join this league.

SH asked whether or not the WRU were supportive of the establishment of an Anglo Welsh league. WG answered saying that personally he honestly felt it would be good for him (although selfishly) in respect of players and exposure to a superior level of games however he is not sure what the “long term” effect would be in respect of the impact on others in the six countries in terms of a downward spiral. SP highlighted that this supposed participation had only come about because the English clubs had chosen to exclude themselves from Europe from next year RL explained that he had proposed a British and Irish league last year to PRL alongside a deal with BT but this was rejected by PRL. SP said that the impact of the withdrawal of the English Clubs from the ERC had left them with six weekends a season to fill and therefore they suddenly want Welsh involvement.

JS asked why the WRU would not support the Regions in considering joining the Aviva, if the Regions believed it financially beneficial, particularly as the WRU are always pressing the Regions to generate more income for themselves. RL said that this was due to the difficulty in breaking existing contractual commitments agreed by all parties, including the Regions.

DD asked why the WRU had not taken up an offer to be part of the discussions around the establishment of an Anglo Welsh League and RL said he had not been asked to attend such a meeting SH asked whether the WRU were therefore not supportive of an Anglo Welsh League to which RL stated that this was a point for the Regions to consider the serious implications of breaking the existing contracts.

NB asked if the Regions could negotiate themselves out of their current obligations with the Union’s assistance whether the Union would support a move towards an Anglo Welsh league and RL advised that it was too hypothetical a question to answer.

NB asked what the contingency plan was for the WRU if the Regions did not sign the PA as they needed professional teams to fulfil their contractual obligations to competitions, RL stated that there had been no public discussions about this, although SP acknowledged that they needed to have these discussions and consider their options in the New Year should the Regions not choose to sign.

DD asked about the reports of the WRU telling players not to sign new contracts with the Regions. WG said that this was a ‘complete and utter lie’ and that legal advice had been sought as this was defamatory. RL, DP and SP fully supported WG’s statement. WG went on to say that he had personally encouraged the six players linked to the additional £1m to sign for their Regions and that he was unhappy that some had chosen to go elsewhere. He stated that he understood that Adam Jones has not been offered a contract by the Ospreys.

WG said that he had been told by players that the reason they were looking elsewhere was not money driven but relating to the quality of some coaching and support staff at the Regions as well as facilities. He felt that the additional £1m could be spent on more quality coaches and not individual players.

NB stated in his opinion that even if the £1m came to fruition it would effectively be a drop in the ocean and have little effect on the player drain to France and England as they will continue to pull ahead leaving the Regions facing an even greater battle for survival. RL said that there was a lot the Regions could do to help themselves to make themselves more competitive and made reference to some of the comments in the PWC report. SP added that the £1m could not be considered in isolation but only in the context of the existing £16m.

RL said that the Regions should use WG and his team more often for coaching advice.

RL said that whilst it was recognised that the Wales team, in return for the player release payment, were effectively using and then returning someone else’s assets – and whilst players were with the Welsh set up there were benefiting from enhancements to their skills, conditioning, mindset etc before being released back to their Regions.

SH asked why the WRU deemed it reasonable to consistently have a 4th Autumn International when it left the Regions with less than 7 days to prepare for crucial European games. RL said that this was for two reasons – firstly, WG’s vision that Wales needed to play the best teams in the world which was why Australia had been added this year, and secondly as a response to the Regions asking for more funding – this is partly what the WRU pay for.

SP said that the inequality in payments to the Regions for the Wales players was a result of the Regions rejecting an offer to distribute funds based on the number of players in the Wales squad; he added that it made far more sense to him if it was done on a pure player release basis. SP went on to point out that the WRU set aside some £6.6m for player release but he understood that less than £5.0m was spent on the current National Squad – this, of course, did not help with players leaving their Regions.

NB asked again about the retention of players in Wales, and the possibility of instigating ‘Gatland’s Law’, WG said that it could be applied in future, but only with assurances that the players would be financially protected, and that they were not taken advantage of by the Regions, and that those already playing abroad were not penalised.

DP stated that he wants the Regions to sign the PA which will give stability and suggested that supporters put some pertinent questions to the Regions, about their management. RL said that the Regions were not taking financial responsibility and maximising their income via marketing, sales and joint sponsorship deals (with the exception of the recently announced Dominos pizza deal). SP said that his financial projections suggested that the Regions had to be pulling in regular gates of up to 12,000 each to make them sustainable.

WG said that Stuart Lancaster was ‘gutted’ that the English clubs had pulled out of the Heineken Cup due to the lack of quality of opposition for them.

NB asked that the WRU meet again with the supporters representatives and RL said he would be delighted to meet in the New Year.

SP asked the supporters’ representatives to please keep the discussions confidential and SH confirmed that as stated at the start of the meeting the supporters representatives have a responsibility to their members and the intention was to provide a full update post the meeting. She stated that a copy of the minutes would be send to the WRU in advance of general release to their members to ensure that nothing commercially sensitive or inaccurate was reported.

SH thanked the WRU for their time and urged them to continue to take the views of supporters on board as we have a lot to lose if a successful resolution isn’t found.

Meeting closed at 6:25pm