It is no exaggeration to say the entire future of Welsh rugby is at stake in Port Talbot this Sunday morning. “You sense it is a significant moment in our history,” confirms Ieuan Evans, chairman of the Welsh Rugby Union (WRU) and a former national captain, as he awaits the critical vote which will determine if the sport in Wales can step back from the abyss. “We love a watershed in Wales, we have them every fortnight.”
Evans’s slightly dark humour is understandable. The WRU faces a binary choice, either there is approval for a package of governance reforms that drags it into the 21st century or total disaster looms. Should the WRU not obtain the necessary 75 per cent majority at this weekend’s emergency general meeting, the dinosaurs will inherit the earth.
Overly dramatic? Not in the context of the grim allegations of sexism, misogyny and a toxic culture within the WRU, currently the subject of an independent review. Or the continuing influence of the amateur “blazer brigade” on a supposedly modern, professional organisation. And we have not yet mentioned last month’s strike threat by the national squad, the financial problems engulfing the regions or the existential threat to rugby union in one of its traditional heartlands.
With prominent sponsors also poised to abandon ship in the event of a “no” vote, Evans and the WRU’s acting chief executive, Nigel Walker, have been working flat out to persuade the grassroots to back their special resolution. The 282 voting member clubs and affiliated organisations will be asked to approve a more independent-minded and more diverse WRU board, with at least five of the 12 directors set to be women.
Last time, at the agm in October, there was insufficient support for change but Evans is more hopeful this time. “At the last agm we were accused of not properly listening or engaging. I don’t think anyone can accuse us of that now. My hope is that the support of the clubs will be overwhelming in our favour. If we are to be a progressive, outward-looking organisation this is what we need to do.”
Evans also freely acknowledges that the days when Welsh rugby was cut some slack as the country’s highest-profile sport have long since faded. “We can’t take it for granted any more. We were taking massive liberties that we can ill afford. People looked across at Wales for many years and said, ‘How did they get the success they’ve got?’ They’ve since addressed that and they’ve got the numbers [of players] as well. We need to up our game again.”
If not, fears Evans, they will be fatally exposed to the winds of change not just gusting through Wales but elsewhere. “Everyone is having to address the same existential points. Some of the problem has been that we probably stopped doing things because we thought: ‘We’re doing pretty well, everything’s great.’ The world doesn’t stop for you, particularly in high performance. The landscape of elite rugby globally is moving at such a rate you can’t stand still or look backwards. You have to move forwards – and quickly.”
Plenty of remedial work also remains to be done on Welsh rugby’s image, even with a signed financial accord with the regions now imminent. As an ex-professional player, Evans clearly empathises with those facing big wage cuts or no contract at all. “It’s been deeply disappointing, frustrating and upsetting for everybody concerned. Hopefully, in the next couple of weeks we’ll alleviate some of those concerns but Wales aren’t alone.
“There’s been a reset in terms of the money available within the whole game. We can’t carry on writing cheques we can’t cash. We have to find a system that allows the game to flourish and survive in a sustainable way. My heart goes out to the players and families who have been affected. But we can’t carry on as we were doing. It just isn’t possible. It should have been addressed some time ago, but it hasn’t been.”
So all roads lead to Port Talbot’s Princess Royal Theatre at 11am on Sunday. The WRU president, Gerald Davies, will speak and contributions from the floor will be invited, with an independent scrutineer overseeing the subsequent ballot. Where will Evans hide during the voting? “I’ll go find a dark room and start making whale noises.”
He and the rest of Welsh rugby can only pray sanity prevails after a painful winter. “There has been darkness over the last few weeks, no doubt about it,” says Evans. “It’s been avoidable, unpleasant and draining.”
His travels around the country, though, have also crystallised the cause for which he is fighting. “You see what rugby means to people. Wales has some of the most deprived wards in the UK. Without the rugby club there isn’t an awful lot else going on. Rugby, in particular, plays such a fundamental role in the wellbeing – physically, emotionally and psychologically – of people around Wales.”
And that is what is ultimately at stake. “It’s the size of the cake, not the size of the slice that matters,” concludes Evans. “And we need to grow that cake, not just in terms of financial and commercial cake but our player base as well. The professional game cannot survive without the numbers coming through the community game. We need to start future-proofing if we are to compete.” – Guardian