The Clairvoyance of IWRTV

When I co-founded IWRTV a little over a year ago, the landscape of Welsh rugby was bleak, perhaps as bleak as it had ever been.  Many words have been written about this period of Welsh rugby by amateur bloggers and the disastrous state the game was in and how it got there.  IWRTV was however, in my opinion, a little different.  We gave a voice to the grassroots clubs in a format they had not benefitted from for some time, and used experienced panel members to articulate their views on the problems in and around rugby in Wales.  Given the independent nature of the programme, we were able to freely and openly discuss these, and almost immediately the audience was captivated and complimentary.  What transpired over the course of the shows was, in retrospect, quite clairvoyant in how the situation was assessed and solutions suggested to overcome the problems.  Looking back over them now with hindsight, it is pleasing to think how we played our part in events of the last year, even once we had stopped broadcasting.

In episode one, Ben Jeffreys lamented the league structure and spoke about how the grassroots clubs were being ignored, a theme that carried through pretty much every subsequent show thereafter.  I joined with other panellists voicing concerns about how the new leagues, initially imposed with very little consultation or empathy for the clubs and their supporters, was leading to a feeling of resentment and would cause a larger problem sooner or later.  And so it transpired, with the EGM call largely set-up on the back of league restructuring issues.  In June, the clubs were by and large placated with reassurances of consultation, but the wheels of change had been set in motion.

Stephen Jones, of the Sunday Times, spoke of the need to market the game better at the lower level and bemoaned the missed opportunities to promote the sport.  Elsewhere, we were praised by club secretaries and regional Chief Executives for exposing the lower echelons to a wider public, showing off the talents of amateur players and generating interest for commercial partners at clubs, who in turn could benefit from greater revenue.  Although we were effectively “shut down” and stopped from showing the games, it was pretty obvious that interest within the clubs had stirred and they had begun to question why they too couldn’t enjoy some kind of coverage of this sort.

David Moffett had of course re-entered the fray and made key points about the WRU finances.  Again IWRTV took the lead with an exclusive interview, asking insightful questions and ensuring club members could hear all sides of the debate and make a balanced judgement.  Whilst others chose to overlook many of his actions and neglected to interview him directly, IWRTV preferred to retain an entirely open stance, although sadly our invitations to the WRU to join us on the show were refused on more than one occasion.

Our final episode lasted a full hour, even without footage, and proved the most profound of all.  Gareth Davies, still CEO of the Newport Gwent Dragons at the time, predicted that until a positive relationship could be found between the regions and the Union, arguments would perpetuate.  In typically robust fashion, Spike Watkins proclaimed Roger Lewis to be the sticking point and maintained that progress would not be made without his removal and a change in the Chairman of the Union.  Within months of the programme being broadcast, Gareth Davies had succeeded David Pickering, and soon after Lewis announced his resignation as CEO.  The tide had turned in the manner IWRTV had predicted in its short six month lifespan.

One prediction though remains outstanding, and that concerns the more distant future and the fate of Welsh rugby over the next 5 years.  Peter Jackson and Andrew Hore both echoed my own comments that the decisions made right now may not be felt today, but in years to come.  Hore went on to state that the legacy of the board can in fact only be judged at that time, and not in the immediate aftermath.  So for all of the current trumpeting in certain quarters, perhaps we should be mindful that Welsh rugby could be on the precipice for a few seasons yet to come.

Maybe one day IWRTV can make a comeback and hopefully continue to fill the vacuum in publicity for those grassroots clubs that so need our support, one can only hope.  For all of us who participated in the show however, it was an unmitigated success, moving the debate along and foreseeing the future.  The path may have seemed obvious to most, even without a crystal ball, but without the courage to speak and the platform to publicise, it is quite feasible that these developments could have remained simply pipe dreams.

The Friday Farce

Well, what a let down Friday was for a Welsh rugby fan!  The awful decision to hold the game on a Friday night was just the start of it.  And we already know it won’t be for the final time, with a Friday night fixture already announced for the next two championships, presumably at the behest of the broadcasters with the usual scant regard for what the paying supporters actually would prefer.

And what on earth was the “light show” before the match all about?  Added to the now obligatory fireworks and the comfortable salary afforded to the CEO of the Welsh Rugby Union, anyone would think Welsh rugby has more money than it knows what to do with but of course that simply isn’t the case!  Grassroots clubs must be livid when they see their own money literally being burned in front of their eyes, a lavish spectacle lasting a couple of minutes preferred to the investment in club rugby and nurturing young talent and the future generation of Welsh players.  And they would rightly be annoyed when they consider what the CEO takes home for organising discos such as this one.

What is wrong with the band and choral hymns of old?  If that isn’t enough of a spectacle, well what about asking youngsters to perform some traditional Welsh dances?  Or getting the Under 20’s or Ladies teams to play a curtain raiser on a newly laid part-artificial turf that should easily now stand up to two games in one day?  What we were left with was more pop concert than sport and meant a complete lack of respect for the anthems as large electrical units were wheeled from the pitch during their singing so as not to delay the kick off.  One can only imagine what was spent on this spectacle all together.

As for the game itself, the result was certainly not what was expected from a solid and settled Welsh side, at home.  For all the horseplay about the roof, England left with no reason to accede to Welsh requests to close it ever again.  After a good start, Welsh fragilities began to show.  A complete lack of creativity behind the scrum was exposed as Wales failed to unlock the English defence.  In fact, it is difficult to remember Wales’ last clean line break and score full stop.  England on the other hand settled down and destabilised the opposition with fast footed players.  Ford, Joseph, Watson and Brown regularly stepped and jinked past first tackles and attacked weak shoulders.

Again Wales seemed to have no plan “B”.  The most creative player in their squad, Liam Williams, was left kicking his heels on the bench having looked hungry for the 8 minutes in which he replaced George North.  He, and Justin Tipuric, had the ability to at least change the style of the home team’s play but were not required on the day, even as Wales sought a way back in the second half.

Recent matches have demonstrated the big differences in the development structure of the two countries.  England are bringing their Under 20’s stars through the ranks, playing them in their “A” side and affording them a step up from Premiership rugby.  When they perform well, like Henry Slade, they are then added to the senior squad.  England seem to value their own young and creative talent whereas in Wales we are currently confining them to bit part roles.  Creative players in Wales are presently far less popular than larger physical specimens.  What has happened to Welsh flair and creativity?  Since the retirement of Shane Williams the team has lacked an X Factor player and is in desperate need of at least two in the backline.

Indeed what a farce last Friday turned out to be for a Welshman!  The WRU though, was as proficient as always in creating a spectacle using smoke and shadows, as it did on the night.  Hopefully though it was the grassroots clubs who truly saw the light and will begin to force for the changes in regime that are desperately needed in order to save our national sport.

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.