A toxic relationship

There’s been an enormous amount of online discussion following last night’s BBC ScrumV Special . In fact, the “scrumv” hashtag and “Roger Lewis” were both in the top ten UK trending topics on Twitter at one point yesterday evening. As someone who was at the recording of the programme, I thought it might be useful to give my impressions of how it went in the studio, and also how it looked to people watching on TV. These two impressions are quite different.

The fact is that those of us who are interested in the current crisis in Welsh rugby (and it is a crisis, in spite of what Roger Lewis seems to believe) have been mostly living off scraps of information in the Welsh media relating to the issues. Gwladrugby is a notable exception to this, of course. Our analysis has become the one of the definitive sources in recent weeks.

Therefore, many of us were relieved last week when we heard the announcement that BBC Wales were planning a ScrumV Special, with an invited audience and a panel representing the key players in the debate. Our immediate thoughts turned to the likely composition of the panel. Would Roger Lewis or David Pickering put themselves forward? Who would represent the fans? Who would represent the regions? Would we be able to directly question the panel?

Some of these questions had been answered by the time we arrived at BBC Wales at 10am yesterday. Some, but not all. It was still unclear who the WRU representative was going to be, but we did know that former Chief Executive and self-proclaimed saviour of Welsh rugby, David Moffett would be there, albeit in the audience rather than on the panel.

In the days leading up to the recording, some information had trickled out regarding who was going to be there. We knew Dragons CEO Gareth Davies would be, and Martyn Thomas, former chief of the RFU. There were mutterings that Paul Rees, the Guardian rugby writer who has done some sterling work in uncovering the details of this sorry affair, would be on the panel. But even as the clock ticked past the planned start time of 10.30am, there was still no word on who the WRU representative would be.

Finally, at 11am, we heard the news that WRU CEO Roger Lewis had decided to attend. At this point many of us had been drinking BBC coffee for over an hour. The atmosphere in the room was tense. Bladders were close to bursting point.

Eventually at 11.15am, 45 minutes late, we were called into the studio. No reason was given for the delay, but several people were convinced that one of the panellists had only just arrived.

For those of you familiar with the BBC studios in Llandaf, the recording took place in studio C1, the former site of the Pobol y Cwm set. A fitting location for a scene from another very Welsh drama to be played out.

As we made our way to our seats, we spotted David Moffett on the front row, chewing his fingernails. Several members of the audience were being miked up, as the producers planned to come to them for comments during the debate. There were also boom mic operators standing at either side of the seating, presumably there to capture questions from the audience.

On the stage, there were five empty chairs. One for presenter Gareth Lewis, the other for the four panellists. After some sound checks and some house rules from the floor manager, the panel filed in and were introduced to the audience one by one. Three of the panellists made their way quietly to their seats on the stage. But Roger Lewis strode across the room, waving and smiling at a number of audience members. He was clutching a leather folder brimming with notes and a spiral bound document, which we were later to discover was the fabled PriceWaterhouseCoopers (PWC) report concerning Welsh rugby finances.

I’m not going to give a blow-by-blow description of the debate which followed. You can see most of it on BBC iPlayer. The programme was recorded “as live”, but there were several exchanges which failed to make the version which went to air.

At one point, during a particularly lively exchange between presenter Gareth Lewis (GL) and Roger Lewis (RL), GL asked RL for his reaction to Peter Thomas’ claim that Regional Rugby Wales (RRW) have “no confidence” in RL. RL’s response to this was the decidedly evasive, “I had coffee with Gareth [Davies] last Thursday.” This exchange was not broadcast.

At several points during the debate when RL was speaking, the audience reacted with jeers and cries of “answer the question!” We had been told we could express our reactions to the discussion, and so we did. At one point, after a succession of questions regarding whether he had made plans to set up new regions, RL responded that he had not. The audience erupted into loud jeers of derision. This reaction is not audible on the broadcast. There may be technical reasons for this, but the fact remains that for large parts of the debate, the audience were loudly expressing derision at much of what RL said.

Another important point to make about the programme is the involvement (or lack of it) of the audience. The show had been set up in a “Question Time” format, and we had been asked to submit questions in the days leading up to it.

When we got into the studio, it was clear that the producers had already decided who would be contributing, and these people had been miked up. These included, David Moffett, a lawyer, a representative of the four Regional Supporters Clubs, and Mark Davies, CEO of the Scarlets. In fact, the boom mic operators might as well have spent the morning at home in bed, for all the use they were. The only spontaneous intervention came from a member of Cross Keys RFC, who spoke in support of RL. At no point were the dozens of regional fans in the room invited to ask a question. Furthermore, there were several occasions where fans put their hands up in response to something one of the panel had said, and they were ignored.

You might say that I’m being naïve in expecting a full and frank debate. But that was what we were led to believe it would be. I can understand why someone who has been under siege as much as RL has would want to carefully control the question topics. However, the BBC are always banging on about balance. I would say, where were the voices of the fans on yesterday’s programme? How’s that for balance? The inclusion of Martyn Thomas was a complete waste of time. He is a largely-discredited has-been; the Nigel Farage of English rugby. As Brian Moore put it on Twitter, the only reason he could think of including Thomas was that the debate was about maladministration. Make of that what you will.

At one point GL asked RL whether he was happy with the way in which he’d conducted himself during this affair. That would’ve been the point to ask him about BBC 5 Live presenter Alastair Eykyn’s claims that RL and Warren Gatland had been badgering Alun-Wyn Jones on a “daily basis”, trying to get the Ospreys player to sign a central contract.  That’s a question I’d have liked to have asked RL, if I’d been given the chance.

I realise I’ve gone on about this quite a lot already. But before I stop, there are a couple of other impressions I took away from yesterday’s programme.

The first one is that Roger Lewis got very bad tempered when he was asked about central contracts and his plans for what happens if the regions walk away. He also waved the PWC report around a lot to make his points. If the report is so marvellous, why doesn’t he publish it?

The second clear impression which came out yesterday is that the relationship between Roger Lewis and RRW is toxic. It’s a word David Moffett used, and he’s right. There are a couple of moments where Gareth Davies visibly winces in response to the things Roger Lewis is saying. There is never going to be a deal between RRW and Roger Lewis, because the relationship is irrevocably broken. That means that this thing is going to court, and a judge will decide the future of Welsh and probably European rugby.