Phillips was not Lewis, but he wasn’t brilliant either

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This week saw the somewhat shock announcement that Martyn Phillips will be stepping down as the Welsh Rugby Union’s Chief Executive this summer.

A shock in the sense that it was suggested he would depart following last year’s Rugby World Cup, and then announced he would be moving on out of the blue on Thursday afternoon, seemingly taking everyone by surprise.

As always when a WRU CEO moves on the mind is cast back over their reign as the person with the power in Welsh Rugby, and actually when I did that it wasn’t something that I immediately thought I would comment on.

In terms of following the absolute poison that was Roger Lewis, Phillips hasn’t been too bad, especially considering he’s still working with remnants from Roger’s reign such as Finance Director Steve Phillips and Head of Rugby Operations Julie Paterson.

However, I happened to read the article on the WRU’s website announcing Phillips’ departure, and was bemused to read nothing about his impact on the professional game in Wales beyond an ‘early implementation of a new Professional Rugby Agreement.’

This is what sparked the tweet in response to the Union’s Twitter announcing the departure, which appeared on WalesOnline as from ‘the respected Cardiff Rugby Life’.

I know expect to be bowed to, applauded and see scenes of general adulation every time I enter the Arms Park.

Anyway, I digress. While Phillips has no doubt had a hand in modernising the WRU’s governance, increased turnover and overseen a period of unrivalled success for the national side, his era as CEO has been a second one that has been unproductive for the regional game in Wales.

Creating the Professional Rugby Board was, on paper, a good move. Splitting the professional game from the community game has been something that has been required for many years, and should have been a step in the right direction.

Unfortunately the execution was sadly lacking as there was too much WRU influence on the PRB with the Dragons, and some felt the Cardiff Blues, representation being in the pocket of the Union, while the supposedly ‘independent’ chairperson would immediately take a seat on the WRU Board.

Alun Jones

With that much WRU influence there then needed to be some leadership from the Union, and as the CEO Martyn Phillips should have been at the head of that, but unfortunately Project Reset played out on his watch, nearly leading to the second civil war and leaving the regions two years behind their Pro14 and European rivals.

There were rumours of a move towards central contracting, decreasing the number of regions to three or even two, and the merging of regions with the possible creation of a new team in North Wales which very few people think to be a commercially viable venture.

During this time it was totally unclear where Phillips and the WRU were driving the regional game to. He maintained that he did not want central control, but everything that happened under his watch was a move towards that. He wanted the regions to be independently successful but the targets put in place seemed to fly in the face of that.

In the end players were lost to England, new signings were missed out on, wage banding led to potential player-led mutiny and the regions finished up exactly where we started. Underfunded and non-competitive.

Throughout the whole Project Reset saga the treatment of supporters was negligible, with no communication until an unsavoury period now dubbed ‘statement-gate’ where all sides were too keen to put out contradictory quotes about what the PRB was aiming for and how it was aiming to get there.

There was also mention in the WRU’s article of Phillips introducing the ‘widely acclaimed’ Senior Player Selection Policy. Widely acclaimed in the same way the Titanic was until it transpired that shortcuts had been taken with the design and holes could bring it down very easily.

So yes, in some respects Martyn Phillips has had great success as Chief Executive of the Welsh Rugby Union, but let’s not pretend it’s all been fine and dandy when actually in some key areas, such as the regional game, no progress has been made at all.

WRU Chairman Gareth Davies will now lead the search for the successor to Phillips, and the message to him is clear; recruit someone with experience of the professional game in Wales.

The next three years will be a crucial time for regional rugby, with the introduction of CVC into the picture and the increasingly real potential for a British and Irish League, a version of which the WRU missed out on in the 1990s.

We cannot afford for the new CEO to make that same mistake again.

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