How to waste a crisis

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In the back of my head somewhere I have this quote attributed to Winston Churchill as the United Nations was being formed after World War Two;

“Never let a good crisis go to waste”

It might be nothing to do with Churchill, the internet is very good at making up quotes these days, but whoever said it had a point. Crisis points are often the best opportunity to spark meaningful change, whether that is on the international diplomatic scene on the back of six years of worldwide conflict, or even more difficult, in the world of rugby.

During the early part of the coronavirus pandemic I was quite optimistic about what it could mean in the long-term for rugby union. Talk of a proper global calendar aligning the club and international games would have been a huge shift away from the amateur area towards properly embracing commercial aspects of the professional game.

Reducing crossover between the club competitions and international windows would have allowed the club game to increase the profitability of leagues and European competitions, with CVC’s private equity investment potentially opening the door to a British & Irish League as well as talk of some sort of World Club Cup against sides from the Southern Hemisphere.

The international game would then have taken place over two longer windows; one in roughly March, April or May, and the other through September, October or November. This could have led to a lucrative yearly international competition, as well as protecting the Rugby World Cup and the British & Lions Tour.

Unfortunately World Rugby and the tier one Unions managed to kill this plan through their reluctance, arrogance or incompetence, delete as you see fit. Not including the clubs in the negotiations for a global calendar will be looked back on in years to come as a grave error.

That’s one waste of a good crisis, but the one I want to concentrate on today is taking place a lot closer to home, as the Welsh Rugby Union manages to make even more of a pig’s ear of governing Welsh rugby than it has already managed. An achievement in itself.

Ahead of the pandemic the WRU was at an interesting point. Martyn Phillips had announced his intention to depart as Chief Executive, Gareth Davies was set to complete his second and final stint as Chairman, and there were potential issues arising in the professional game over the funding of the Dragons and in the community game over the audit process which allocated funding to the grassroots clubs.

When the pandemic struck it brought all those issues into even sharper focus as the WRU needed a plan to survive after potentially losing £50m of their £90m revenue, that having a knock-on effect of threatening the existence of all professional, semi-professional and amateur clubs.

Initially an element of stability was sought as Martyn Phillips agreed to stay on as CEO, a loan was set to be secured to ensure the future of professional club rugby, and a fund was set up to support grassroots clubs as well as advice given on how to access Government and Local Authority assistance.

However, five months on and the game in Wales is close to chaos. Martyn Phillips has suddenly decided to up and leave as CEO, Gareth Davies is locked in a three-way battle for his seat on the WRU Council with Ieuan Evans and Nigel Davies, there’s still no loan for the professional game, and grassroots clubs have no idea when, or if, they will be able to return to playing.

Just to make matters worse, Steve Phillips has taken as CEO on a temporary basis. One of Roger Lewis’ trusted lieutenants who attempted to kill the regional game in 2013/14, he is a known proponent of the two professional club system in Wales, a move which would negatively impact the national team, and is the man who as Finance Director has been unable to secure the £20m loan this year.

This Phillips has no background in leadership having only ever worked in finance at KPMG, TBI and then the WRU, and could team up with Ieuan Evans or Nigel Davies in the Chairman role, neither of whom have any experience of running a business that turns over £90m, and are campaigning on policies of strengthening the community game’s involvement in the professional game.

So now we see where the WRU are wasting a good crisis.

This was an opportunity to implement a real step-change in Welsh rugby. Bring in someone as CEO, and potentially Chairman, who have a track record in sporting governance potentially outside Wales and certainly outside rugby union, that can drive improvement through all areas of the business.

The community and professional games could have been totally separated in a replication of the way the British Amateur Rugby League Association works with the Rugby Football League in the 13-a-side code, allowing the grassroots clubs to thrive under their own governance and the professional clubs to work freely on their own.

A plan put together that would ensure funding for the community game is used wisely on facilities, and mini and junior sections, and not for paying players, and that revolutionises the league system, potentially scrapping it, would have a hugely positive impact on clubs and communities for years to come.

Then an effective leader could continue to drive revenues up while ensuring they were mostly invested in the professional game which would lead to success at club level and, crucially for the WRU, at international level. Consistently competing with the likes of South Africa and New Zealand, rather than winning the Six Nations every few years.

Instead we’re set to stick with the status quo. A jobs for the boys environment where former players and administrators who have been in place for numerous years are preferred to innovation and development, where local village clubs believe professional clubs are ‘stealing their money’ and think they should have a say in the professional game.

That will always hold Welsh rugby, the WRU and Wales in general back. A small mindedness that rejects new ideas and a self-made chip on the shoulder that automatically assumes people are keen to take away what you hold dear, rather than improving it.

Until we expand our horizons we will always be the rugby nation that has to punch above our weight to compete. What a chance we have to change that whole mindset, there’s still time to avoid wasting it.

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