WRU Reforms Making Progress

The question of WRU governance modernisation is never far from the lips of Welsh rugby fans interested in the sport’s politics. In his latest blog for Dai Sport, Geraint Powell looks at recent developments.

Having twice looked at the vexed question of WRU governance modernisation (1) earlier this season (2), it was interesting to receive news this week of considerable progress at the last WRU board meeting.

1) Centralised

Despite the reaction in some quarters, the proposed reforms at the centralised level are broadly on course to be implemented in full by the WRU board.

Pivotally, a smaller 8-12 person board based on skill sets is imminent. The old 27 man general committee, that has lived on through the guise of an 18 person “board” since the failed Tasker Watkins review, is finally going to be consigned to the dustbin of history.

This was the key objective, above all else, for WRU Chairman Gareth Davies. Modern sports governance, and some external funding streams, simply demands this modernisation.

There is an acceptance that the regional and club games need to be far better aligned, although as always the devil will be in the detail.

Requiring most directors to be grounded in the club game and elected is no great change from the initial proposal, and arguably provides additional democratic safeguards to the member clubs that constitute the WRU.

2) Decentralised

Where the governance modernisation has run into difficulties is where it was most likely to run into difficulties in the current non-confrontational landscape.

At the decentralised level, namely the proposed replacement of the nine archaic and ineffectual districts with five regional rugby boards.

There is a certain irony in that the “region” word has become an impediment, when Welsh rugby’s underlying problem is that we have not embraced representative regionalism at all.

Many club stakeholders fear the “region” word, because of the troubles caused through essentially non-regional acting “super” clubs. Few rugby communities see their professional region as an extension of their club affinity, and in fairness with good cause given the tortuous implementation since 2003. This needs to change.

The problem for the Chairman is that he has been unable to outline a vision for regional rugby boards, for fear of plunging Welsh rugby into conflict.

We remain a hopelessly divided rugby nation, ill at ease with ourselves, with different stakeholders pulling in different directions towards representative regionalism/provincialism, protected “super” clubs status and even a return to full pyramidal club meritocracy.

There will always have to be an interface between the five regional teams (Blues, Dragons, Ospreys, RGC, Scarlets) and the five regional rugby boards, but Welsh rugby is not yet ready for the terms of this to be bluntly spelt out.

At least outside of North Wales and Gwent, where logically there should be a fusion between the RGC/Dragons and WRU structures and bureaucracies.

Regional Rugby Boards are not required simply as souped-up versions of the weak if loved historical WRU districts, for they will be needed to help run the professional representative regional teams.

The same administration again, but on a regional rather than a districts basis, will not get beyond the current apathy, antipathy and suspicion towards the professional regional teams and financial demands of their current – albeit increasingly exiting – private owners.

3) The devolution problem

If all successful union operated rugby models depend upon alignment and co-operation between the centre and the decentralised, and New Zealand has taken this further into a tri-partite model with additional devolved private investors, why can’t Welsh rugby play catch-up?

Whilst there is undoubtedly a legacy of an extremely centralised administration in Welsh rugby, probably ingrained at board level, the problem in recent years has increasingly been a distraction with pointless sideshows.

And the pointless sideshow above all others is the pointless chant “to split the professional game from the amateur game”. It has become the holy grail of the intellectually challenged.

New Zealand rugby wasted a few weeks on this issue in 1995, before deciding it was a pointless distraction debate whose implementation would provide no fundamental practical help and would just create new complications.

If you split the game, however you treat any additional semi-professional tier between professional and amateur, with the obvious non-alignments that will then accrue, the board will still have to resolve the matter of the appropriate resource balance between the severed parts.

In a union of provinces, the provinces will ensure they retain control of the board. In a union of clubs, the clubs will ensure they retain control of the board. The dogma leads nowhere.

The key is devolution, moving as many matters as possible away from the qualified main board and especially the administration of the game below what is the “A” licence game in Wales.

The NZRU board is there to operate “the financial engine” of the All Blacks, plus oversee the supply chain of the Super Rugby regional franchises and the inter-provincial competitions. The wider club game, below strategic national policy, is a matter for administration by the provincial unions.

The provincial unions oversee their representative team, are usually shareholders in their regional franchise, and are the NZRU governance of the club game within their boundaries.

New Zealand rugby may one day be commercially overwhelmed by the sheer weight of inefficient finance in other huge countries, but it will never be beaten by greater structural efficiency.

In the Welsh context, some of the clamour for a grand schism across the sport is driven by unhappiness over the flawed practical implementation of the player development pathway between the regions and the “A” licence clubs and the knock-on effects down the pyramid.

Address that specific problem, not throw the baby and all the other children out with the bathwater.

4) Next Steps

There are obviously likely to be differences of opinion over the exact skill sets for nominated and elected directors of a future 8-12 person WRU board, and that qualification threshold will have to be resolved even if it leaves blood on the carpet.

But that will essentially bring the current governance modernisation to a conclusion, addressing the most pressing issues at the centralised level.

What will have to be revisited within a few years will be the devolved question of regional structures, as both the imprint of regional identities and the representing professional teams will otherwise remain unacceptably weak and unfit for purpose at Pro14 let alone European level.

Regionalism cannot be left to the great efforts of individuals, and there are individuals doing great work at a number of regions, without structural/systemic foundations.

The financial respite of the relative current success of the Scarlets, albeit atop a balance sheet embedded in quicksand despite massive long-term state and regional benefactor aid and contracts weighted towards them and the Ospreys, will not disguise the underlying problems for long.

If the legacy of Gareth Davies might turn out to be streamlining the WRU at the centre, his successor will have to tackle these devolution issues that cannot be prevaricated over forever however controversial and however poorly they might be received in some professional game quarters.

There will need to be regional rugby boards and they will become the masters, not the servants, of the professional regions as the financial burden and risk increasingly shifts from private benefactors to the WRU. A District A director being appointed to the Dragons region board is just the beginning.

Regional rugby boards? Towards the top of the agenda of the first incoming 8-12 person skill sets WRU board.

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