The autumn internationals got off to a somewhat inauspicious start on Saturday evening as Wales were completely outclassed by New Zealand in a 16-54 defeat at the Principality Stadium.
Usually a defeat like that would generate days of outcry and criticism in traditional media and on social media, but this one was seemingly so under the radar that it’s washed over a lot of people. With plenty of tickets still available on the morning of the game, it taking place outside an international window so clashing with league games in England and France, and kicking off at the same time as Spurs v United in the Premier League, it wasn’t a typical big clash.
Particularly with the encounter being outside the window, it reduced expectations considerably. Thomas Young, Taulupe Faletau, Dan Biggar, Callum Sheedy, Nick Tompkins and Louis Rees-Zammit were all out of action, while injuries to Ken Owens, Justin Tipuric, Ellis Jenkins, Josh Navidi, George North, Liam Williams and Leigh Halfpenny, plus the covid positive Uilisi Halaholo, meant it was a severely weakened side that took to the field.
Realistically Saturday went about as well as could have been expected for Wales, battling for 60 minutes until New Zealand’s quality shone through in the final quarter of the game to claim victory. There were certainly positives for the hosts, in the way we kept the ball for periods and managed to put the opposition under pressure, while individually the likes of Taine Basham and Aaron Wainwright stood out.
However, there were certainly work-ons as the fringe defence struggled to maintain the All Blacks’ tight attacking game early on, while the lineout faultered on at least two key occasions when points where there to be scored.
What makes it successful overall though is that the Welsh Rugby Union pocketed £4m in tickets, hospitality, refreshments and sponsorship, with the game almost purely a money making exercise rather than being seriously about getting a result or having really any rugby value beyond getting the home-based players in training camp a week earlier.
As a result it is now up to the WRU to determine exactly how successful Saturday’s clash turns out to be in terms of how they spend that money. Luckily for them, I have an idea!
Firstly, use a portion of the money to pay off chief executive Steve Phillips. He’s clearly a capable accountant as he has managed to bleed every last penny out of Welsh rugby over the last decade to get the Union into a good position financially ahead of the coronavirus pandemic, but as a leader he completely lacks the strategic vision to ensure the business thrives.
For too many years the WRU has prioritised the men’s national team, and upping the community game funding without ensuring that money is spent appropriately, to the detriment of the men’s professional pathway, the 7s programme and resulting in the almost complete decimation of women’s performance rugby in the country.
Phillips has done nothing to address any of that, and in terms of the men’s professional pathway has actually weakened it further by lumbering the four professional clubs with a £20m loan that he has subsequently failed to re-negotiate into a long-term low-interest loan as promised, with one payment of £1m each already made and another due soon.
The proof is in the pudding with that as when 34-year-old Ken Owens, 36-year-old Alun Wyn Jones, 32-year-old Justin Tipuric, 31-year-old Taulupe Faletau, 32-year-old Dan Biggar and 30-year-old Liam Williams are missing then the men’s national team seriously struggle, just two years out from a World Cup.
So with Phillips out of the way some money can then be spent on a search for a suitably qualified CEO with serious commercial experience and experience of top level sport, that can ably manage and drive forward a £90m business.
The obvious first act would be to sell the Dragons and then form a PRL style organisation where the four professional clubs can run the professional side of the game, including representing Wales on the boards of Celtic Rugby and European Professional Club Rugby, and distribute an allocated amount of money from the Welsh Rugby Union for their services.
This body could also deal with a 7s programme, if it is deemed to be required, and the women’s performance programme, whether that be four semi-professional Welsh teams underneath a centrally contracted national women’s squad, or perhaps entering a professional side in the English Premier 15s competition.
Any surplus money then goes to the community game with their board deciding how best to spend that money, as the WRU essentially splits into a professional rugby union and an amateur rugby union, in a similar fashion to how rugby league is run in England.
Of course I have no hope that any of this will happen as former Geography teacher Rob Butcher continues as WRU chairman, completely inadequately experienced to take a role that’s main function is to oversee the strategy and vision of the Union and hold senior executives to account, rather than simply wear a blazer and enjoy a free stay in the Parkgate Hotel.
So in the end, the £4m will probably be spent on a roof walk at the Principality Stadium or covering the losses at said hotel, and Saturday will ultimately be a failure any way you look at it.