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 Rhys Priestland’s Move

The appetite for Welsh fly-halves by English clubs is not a new phenomenon, though the signing of Scarlets product and Welsh International 10 Rhys Priestland by Bath last week, has once again brought the issue to the forefront of people’s minds.  Bath are a great club with good coaches and forward thinking plans to develop their stadium and possibly the best training facilities in England.  The move on the face of it is therefore a good one for Priestland, who will almost certainly have increased his salary substantially by crossing the bridge into a league with more interest and less financial constraint than the Pro12.  Equally, living in Cardiff won’t make his journey to his new workplace a particularly arduous one, and he is treading a well-worn path of Welsh players to the “axis” of English clubs along the border such as Bristol and Gloucester as well as Bath.

The attacking style of Bath is however is far more suited to the style of George Ford, who plays more in the “moment”, bringing the ball to the line and adjusting his game to play what he sees in front of him.  I’m not certain this is Priestland’s natural way of playing and whilst he is undoubtedly a talented young player, I worry that he could be spending a good deal of time warming the bench playing second fiddle to Ford and only getting a run in the shirt during international periods, or when his rival is injured.

And what of his international aspirations?  If he does indeed get less game time than he would have enjoyed at the Scarlets then certainly the move won’t have done him any favours, but neither will the introduction of the so-called “Gatland’s Law”, if indeed it is fully enforced, which I somewhat doubt.  So far this has only been spoken about as and when it suits those who would like it to be implemented.  Indeed, this “law” appears nothing but a smokescreen created by the local hacks with so many loopholes even the WRU CEO, during one recent TV interview, seemed unclear as to what the policy actually is.

Whilst the Scarlets will certainly recover from the loss of their talisman, as they did when Stephen Jones joined Montferrand in 2004, there is already some concern over who can replace Priestland straight away.  Yet the Scarlets have for years had Jordan Williams on their books, although they have persisted in playing him out of position at full-back and on the wing, and now questions are being asked of his ability to step into the regional 10 shirt on a regular basis.  To me this situation highlights deeper issues within the “modern” Welsh game.  Whereas once we were a nation known for placing our faith in a talented and unpredictable fly-half full of flair to drive the team forward with their innate ability, now we rely on reliable performers who can effectively implement the game plan currently “en vogue”.

Whether this is purely down to the National team employing a Southern Hemisphere coach, or a rather more profound problem is not exactly clear, however what is certain is that younger players are being overlooked before they have the chance to fully develop.  I often worry that coaches are spending too much time coaching the “why” of the game, rather than the “how”.  As a former player who has experience in this position, I always looked to plan several phases ahead trying to manipulate defences, in a similar way to the game is now played.  Back then the game was much different though in many ways, and the coaches mantra of “ball-retention” was yet to be invented.  However, where once basic skillsets and self-preservation were vital, now there is emphasis on power, ball-retention and getting over the gain-line.  Rugby has seemingly become a chess match at the top level, rather than allowing those gifted footballers and playmakers to use the space they see in front of them and do what comes most naturally.

Ironically, this is exactly how Bath play their game, and their current 10-12-13 axis could herald a change in the way England themselves play, if Stuart Lancaster chooses to select Ford, Joseph and Eastmond en bloc, although I sincerely doubt he will given his selections to date.  Whilst Priestland doesn’t obviously fit into this style, he certainly has the talent to work into the role.  However players like Jordan Williams and also Matthew Morgan who came through the Welsh Junior ranks should not be neglected, and instead must also be given the chance to thrive in teams with the same free-spirit and emphasis on flair as the West Country side.  They should be given the same opportunities as their English counterparts Owen Farrell and Ford himself, who both progressed through the English system at exactly the same time as Williams and Morgan, yet enjoy far more acclaim in their home country with starring roles on the International stage.

With Gareth Davies now at the helm of the Welsh Rugby Union, things will undoubtedly change and hopefully we can reverse the flow of talent out of the country.  Already though, as well as Priestland and Morgan, Owen Williams and James Hook are playing senior rugby in England, and there are also emerging talented youngsters like Callum Sheedy and Matthew Protheroe pursuing their own development over the border.  The last 5 or 6 years could prove catastrophic for Welsh rugby if we are not careful, but things can change quickly if we act now and stop the player drain.

For this to be successful however, perhaps we need to alter our own mindset in Wales, and move our focus back to the flair fly-halves we all admired in days gone by.  Let us start promoting players on their ability and giving the youngsters the chance to develop their talents before we discard them for being the wrong shape or size.  Let us nurture the playmakers in our game for they are the ones who can change our fortunes.  Whilst Rhys Priestland’s move is more than likely based on money and European aspirations, he will most probably also develop these very attributes in a free-flowing Bath side.

After watching three high quality Aviva Premiership games last weekend, between Bath and Wasps, Sale and Northampton, and Gloucester and Saracens, compared to some dour Pro12 fixtures at Swansea, Cardiff and Glasgow, one must conclude that Priestland is an outside half who has seen what is in front of him and made the right play.  Good luck to him in any case, and particularly to other fly-halves prepared to buck the trend and unleash their flair.

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.