Reaction to Election of Gareth Davies as WRU Chairman

What a difference a few weeks make!  Even in the rapidly evolving world of Welsh rugby, the seismic changes at the top of the game such as those felt at this particular time are extremely rare occurrences.  After the damp squib of the EGM in June, many who had called for change felt dejected, yet once the clubs had chosen to remove Chairman David Pickering in favour of Gareth Davies and Anthony Buchanan one could feel a shift in momentum was afoot. Now that Davies is the new Chairman, selected just days after joining the board, this can only mean that members are truly intent on root and branch reform, and those of us who have been pointing out this need for change for many months will feel these events vindicate our strong statements.  On the opposite side however, those who have supported the Union’s stance to the hilt to this point, must be shifting uneasily as they wonder how the chips will fall.Gareth Davies is a strong leader, a man of great business acumen and a rugby man through and through.  He is a true Welsh personality with striking linguistic skills and an endearing persona who called for change in both his role as Newport Gwent Dragons CEO and through the Regional Rugby Wales body, and now has the realistic potential to be the very catalyst for those changes that are so needed.  In being prepared to join me on one of my IWRTV shows in May, he demonstrated his commitment to grassroots rugby, his forward thinking and above all his openness to discussion, a trait which has so obviously been lacking from the Union in recent times.Through his use of Social Media he becomes one of very few in the Welsh Rugby Union to embrace new technology and to engage with the general public on the issues surrounding the game.  He has previously also used this platform to pronounce his views on the impotent Welsh media, stating that the only serious journalists are based in England.  Sadly I anticipate the sucking up to Gareth Davies will have started already in the Cardiff press, but I am equally quite certain that Gareth will not be drawn in by this pitiful façade and will expose it for what it is.  It will be interesting to see what alters now and whether non-mainstream media such as IWRTV, previously marginalised by the Union, will now be allowed to engage and assist with the promotion of the game, particularly at levels beneath the professional ranks.

Davies is a vociferous supporter of the grassroots of the game, understanding the importance of the junior levels in finding and nurturing the talent of the future having come through the ranks at Gwendraeth Grammar School and Tumble RFC himself.  Whilst the Union has unashamedly concentrated most of its efforts on the revenue-making higher echelons of the game, those beneath have suffered from the neglect.  Some clubs have withered and died, others have lost players and cut back on teams.  Many have become disillusioned with the lack of support from above, especially on issues relating to the league restructuring which contributed to the call for the EGM.  There are huge challenges at this level of our game, to restore the broken trust and to reverse the current trend dragging people away from the national sport of Wales, but these are challenges the new Chairman will tackle head on.

All of these matters will be however be played out in the first instance as sub-plots to the main event.  The icy relationship between WRU Chief Executive Roger Lewis and Gareth Davies has just taken a dramatic twist and the end is surely nigh for the former.  For all the recent on screen chummy chat, the months spent wrangling across negotiating tables or debating in television studios and all of the evasive smoke and mirrors, will not be forgotten.  In short time, the regions have taken control of Welsh rugby, helping set-up their own competition, augmenting their funding and placing their own man at the helm, even in the face of countless political games and PR stunts.  Now the tables have turned and the cosy Pickering-Lewis alliance has been broken, I see it as just a matter of time whilst the case builds and the noose tightens around Lewis’ neck.  I am anticipating a case of “separation by mutual consent” sooner rather than later.  And in my honest opinion, the sooner it happens the better.


Asking Questions of TMOs.

Refereeing a game of rugby can seem like a thankless task at times, faced with the criticism from the stands, two sets of players who only ever see things their own way and living with the pressure of making match-altering decisions in a split second.  Even though it sometimes may not appear so when I am on the sideline with my coaches hat on, I fully appreciate the difficult job referees do, and the old adage that there would be no game without the ref is undeniably true.   A person whom I really admire is ex-referee and former Head of Elite Referee Development at the RFU Ed Morrison.  I respected him during my career as a player because of his great empathy for the game of rugby and in now taking the time to now make TV appearances on BT’s Rugby Tonight show to explain the laws he is helping fans with their own understanding of our sport.  In my view this programme in general is a refreshing change to the way rugby is presented on TV and in stark contrast to the rather dated output on offer elsewhere.The game is much tougher now of course, play is much faster and players far more “professional” and cunning, sometimes using deception to outwit a referee.  That is why it is vitally important the referees and assistants work closely and efficiently together as team and also why I absolutely agree with the introduction and use of Television Match Officials.  The TMO’s were not introduced to stop tries being scored, although I often ponder how the course of history would have changed had they been in situ in days gone by!  Would the 1976 Grand Slam have been French had a TMO helped to send JPR Williams to the stands for his charge on Jean-François Gourdon?  Perhaps the World would never have known Nelson Mandela’s Rainbow Nation celebrations if Derek Bevan could have checked Abdelatif Benazzi’s grounding in the semi-final.The TMO involvement in the game is now a vital part of proceedings, and with their participation there is much less excuse for error.  Yet how often do we see the wrong calls still made, or decisions not even referred to the TMO, even when an element of doubt does exist?  Just recently Thomas Waldrom scored a try against Harlequins from an offside position in front of Mitch Lees who charged down Ben Botica’s kick.  Waldrom gathered and showed good pace to sprint to the in-goal area but the try should never have been allowed, yet the officials on the field could see no wrong, nor did they seemingly have the doubt that should have persuaded them to consult Geoffrey Warren in the TV truck.  When even commentators on a highlights show then failed to point out something so blatant, I was left contemplating the fact that not everybody knows all the laws of the game who maybe should.  As coaches we sometimes say that these decisions balance themselves out over time so it is perhaps ironic that just a year ago in a crucial Aviva Premiership game at Adams Park the TMO scrubbed out a perfectly legitimate Henry Slade try that would have meant Exeter qualifying for a European play-off rather than Wasps.  He later apologised for the error and despite the wheel turning full circle this season the primordial outcome should be that we get every decision right first time around.In fact, very few people at all speak up when these kinds of errors are made, as they still continue to be.  There are so many 50-50 calls in the modern game it is imperative to get them correct as often as humanly possible.  With the involvement of TMO’s, we should be improving our game, but are we?  How often do we now see the on the field referee staring a big screen and making his own call?  If this is the solution then what is the use of a fourth qualified official?  They are slowly becoming little more than glorified VCR operators, rewinding and forwarding footage for the man in the middle to steal the limelight for himself.  Surely if we are going to have the position of Television Match Official in Rugby Union we should value their input more, consult them whenever there is any doubt whatsoever, and act on the objective advice they give from a position detached from the action and the pressure of the players, coaches and fans.  Quite when they should be consulted is a another question altogether, and is sure to face further scrutiny in the wake of Jonathan Kaplan’s comments about the South African TV coverage of the Rugby Championship match between South Africa and New Zealand.  Kaplan believes multiple replays of Liam Messam’s challenge on Schalk Burger that were shown on the stadium screen by South African producers directly influenced Wayne Barnes’ decision to review the incident and subsequently award the match-winning penalty to South Africa.  The incident had been missed by the match officials during play and without these replays, the kick would never have been given and the outcome of the match altered.  What kind of precedent this sets and how home broadcasters will act in future will therefore also now become a hotly-debated topic in the rugby world.

Analysis of the Home Nation Fly-Halves.

The Northern Hemisphere season is now well underway and players with international aspirations are vying for attention, hoping for a place in their respective squads ready for the Autumn International fixtures, which will be upon us before we even know it.  Naturally, I always take a keen interest in those competing for the number 10 jersey and always keep a particular eye on those who dream of wearing the coveted three feathers.In Wales, Daniel Biggar looks by far the most accomplished performer and has a real match winning temperament.  He is currently doing a sterling job leading his young Ospreys side, and kicking an extremely high percentage of his goals.  Behind him, the competition is much of a muchness, with no one player showing the consistency to pull ahead of the rest.  Rhys Priestland, James Hook, Rhys Patchell, Owen Williams, and Jason Tovey (who has again picked up an injury but is still yet to fulfil his huge potential), will soon find themselves under real pressure from the likes of Jordan Williams, Matthew Morgan and Angus O’Brien.  O’Brien has shown huge promise in pressure situations, for instance as a replacement against the Ospreys and will be one for the future.  Morgan is already in the selectors minds and simply needs a consistent run in the jersey, rather than being pushed to 15.  Jordan Williams is perhaps the most talented of the lot but is almost exclusively played out of his favoured position and asked to fill in at full-back or on the wing which will ultimately cost him his chance.Elsewhere in the British Isles, the situation is also evolving.  Scotland’s Duncan Weir seems to be settling into his role despite not looking like an archetypal fly-half and has really improved his game management in a good Glasgow Warriors side, undoubtedly nurtured by coach Gregor Townsend.  Ruaridh Jackson and Tom Heathcote have shown some good touches too, but neither was likely to threaten Weir for the starting spot this Autumn, even before Jackson’s unfortunate season ending injury just recently.  The Irish situation is almost similar, with Jonathan Sexton full of quality and a real shoo-in for the number ten berth with Paddy Jackson snapping at his heels.  Ian Madigan has all the attributes a fly-half requires and will soon pose a challenge.  However I really like the way Stuart Olding is developing and particularly admire his decision making capabilities.  My view is that his future could lie at outside half, or playing as a second receiver at 12.  Only time will tell.Contrasted to the other nations, England have almost an embarrassment of riches at 10 these days, with the likes of George Ford and Owen Farrell leading the way, closely followed by Stephen Myler, Danny Cipriani, Charlie Hodgson, Henry Slade, Toby Flood….and more.  Whereas in the past, English fly-halves were once openly criticised for not having a major controlling influence on the team, the boot is now on the other foot with even Wales looking outside their borders for quality 10’s and game-managing players.

Personally I’ve always rated Exeter’s Gareth Steenson.  Ever since he first came onto my radar playing for Ireland in the Junior World Cup in Scotland back in 2004 I could see he had the ability to run the game.  I’ve watched him play at the Cornish Pirates and Rotherham as well as Exeter and he is a real all-rounder at 10, displays great ability with the boot and shows outstanding attacking vision, particularly in his current position in the well-drilled Chiefs line-up.

Some might say Steenson lacks a touch of pace, but he more than makes up for that with reliability and quality game management.  He’s the sort of player you can put your life on who doesn’t give the opposition a chance.  All teams want a dependable man at fly-half – just look at the great New Zealand side of the late 80’s and early 90’s where Grant Fox was always chosen ahead of Stephen Bachop and Frano Botica for just the same reasons, despite the latter two winning the “popular vote”.So could there now be a place for Gareth Steenson, a 30-year old Irish player, who is now eligible for England?  Or is he just too old?  Has he arrived on the scene too late in the day?  Surely not.  In my view a player with enough ability to force a talent like Slade into the centre, capable of pulling the strings and with a steely determination to win is good enough to be in any side.Whoever Stuart Lancaster, Warren Gatland, Vern Cotter and Joe Schmidt select need good game management skills, a cool temperament and the cunning and guile to unlock a defence, never an easy task these days.  As always, I’ll be watching with great interest.

Rugby Paper Release Published 21st September 2014

The coating of Teflon is starting to melt away from the top echelons of Welsh rugby. The charade played out in the Welsh media that the ruling parties could do no wrong came to an abrupt end last week with the deselection of Chairman David Pickering from the board of the Welsh Rugby Union.  Ever since 2009, during my tenure as Head Coach of the Gwent Dragons, I, and many others in similar positions to myself, felt that the Participation Agreement signed by the Welsh Regions at that time would leave the game in dire straits. My own prediction of major troubles over the following three to four years came true as events transpired. The Regions really only had themselves to blame for getting into this mess back then, but all credit to them for having the courage to stand up to the threats and posturing of the Union this time around. Despite those at the top of Welsh rugby threatening them with extinction, the Regions hung on to their principles and formed a close alliance with clubs in England, negotiating an ultimately favourable settlement on their own terms. Although the damage caused by the long-winded discussions will take time to repair – possibly many years, at least the Regions have assured their own future and can begin the healing process.I can’t pretend that last Friday’s result wasn’t a surprise to me, as it genuinely came as a shock to hear of Pickering’s downfall. Not because I didn’t feel he deserved to be replaced but because I worried the WRU had become an unstoppable force in Welsh rugby, and yet another opportunity for change would be lost, just as it had been at the EGM in June. I cannot express just how pleased I am to be proven wrong on this occasion, and how proud I personally am of the clubs who voted for this change. David Pickering had a made a rod for his own back in failing to stand up to a power-hungry CEO and the clubs have punished him for this. Now they expect the whole house to come tumbling down, and should not rest until Roger Lewis is gone. In every company the World over, the CEO is employed by and accountable to his board. In the case of the WRU this simply has not happened, although maybe things are about to change.Enough is enough, and despite assurances of “dignity” from a “listening Union” acting “for the good of Welsh rugby”, issues at all levels of the game have compounded one on top of another with no positive resolution. Not that you would know it of course from the Cardiff media, who only seem to report what they are told and never probe beneath the surface to ask difficult questions of those in power. There are some journalists and players turned pundits who really must struggle to look themselves in the mirror these days, and have potentially compromised their reputations and integrity irrevocably.The whole rotten saga has however bolstered the reputations of some. Men like Paul Rees and Peter Jackson deserve a medal for persistently asking the salient questions and not succumbing to pressure placed upon them. In the same vein, I helped to form Inside Welsh Rugby, an online show which not only gave the grassroots of Welsh rugby a voice, but also gave a platform to open debate that simply wasn’t available elsewhere. Guests like Andrew Hore (Ospreys CEO), Stephen Jones (Sunday Times Rugby Correspondent) Gareth Davies (Newport Gwent Dragons CEO) and Peter Jackson himself joined me to voice concerns about the hierarchy of the Welsh game. As the show evolved, we found ourselves prevented from using game footage by the WRU and their broadcast partners, despite clubs showing the very same matches themselves on YouTube. We were told to first apply to the BBC for the rights, paying a fee (of “approximately £200,000”) and documenting our editorial stance. Quite why they needed information pertaining to our editorial stance was incredibly concerning and bore more resemblance to life behind the Iron Curtain than a democratic civilisation such as 21st century Britain. Either way, we were never able to afford the fees demanded and so curtailed production far sooner than we would have hoped. These programmes however remain relevant to the current state of affairs and can still be watched at www.YouTube.com/IWRTV. One thing for sure though is that if Welsh rugby ends up in a better position as a result of these travails, then we are very glad to have played a small part ourselves.However, perhaps the person who deserves the greatest plaudits of all is the man who started the ball rolling down this path, a certain David Moffett. Sometimes audacious, often vociferous and always on the button with his analysis, Moffett came back to Wales to gain election as Chairman of the Union himself. He might not ultimately have succeeded in that specific aim, but few could possibly argue that his re-emergence onto the scene has been anything than a success. After all, it was he, along with his “Twitter Twenty” that gathered support, wrote a comprehensive manifesto and forced the June EGM which began the process culminating in last week’s result.

And what of the two board members who did win favour with the clubs? Both live and breathe the sport, and have been involved at Regional as well as club level. Gareth Davies, in particular, has an impressive CV, with experience gained not just within rugby but also in a wider business context. Davies also has all the demeanour, poise and intelligence of a natural leader, plus the strength and courage to remain steadfastly on course when required. To me, he is the natural successor as Chairman, a man who can galvanise support, stand up to Lewis and restore the dignity in Welsh rugby, in exactly the way Gerald Davies implored the clubs to at the EGM. Thank goodness they have finally heeded his words.