Once Wales’ most capped rugby player, most prolific tryscorer and most decorated captain, Ieuan Evans was the wide man who always held centre stage. Now, he’s seeking to be at the hub of events in a different role – as a member of the Welsh Rugby Union’s council. Graham Thomas hears why.
When Ieuan Evans lifted the 1994 Five Nations trophy as Wales captain, he wore the look of a man who knew the truth.
His team had won the title, but they had just been beaten by England at Twickenham – a Grand Slam opportunity had been lost – and the skipper’s instinct was to reflect the mixed emotions he felt inside rather than dance to the tune of TV producers who wanted joyous celebration.
Some 26 years later and Evans is again determined to keep it real. This time, the fight is not to win for Wales, or the Lions, but to capture a seat on the council of the Welsh Rugby Union.
To win, he must defeat not only his former Llanelli and international teammate Nigel Davies, but also the incumbent Gareth Davies, who is six years into his spell as WRU chairman and who would be happy for the Union to change the rulebook in order to potentially extend that to nine.
If that appears an odd form of democracy, then there’s more. It’s been suggested that some officials within the Union would like to see Davies re-elected, remain on the board, and then for current chief executive Martyn Phillips to step sideways – rather than down – and become the first non-executive chairman, a ruse that would keep them both in power.
Perhaps this is starting to sound more like the playbook from some tin-pot, medal-slung national president reluctant to leave the scene, but then remember, too, that when Evans stood for a WRU council vacancy earlier this year, the election outcome was declared, but not the result.
The winner – John Manders – and the losers, Evans and Nigel Davies, were not told how many votes they had received but only that Manders had won. In fact, officially, no-one knows.
Quite why the WRU refuses to announce its voting figures for its elections is uncertain, even among those who work there. But even they concede it’s not a great look, sitting somewhere between Robert Mugabe and Kim Jong-un.
Even recent history is littered with published results from WRU elections and there is nothing in their Articles that says they can’t tell anyone.
Given all that, you need to be resourceful, determined and agile to enter into the politics of Welsh rugby, all qualities that Evans, now 56, possessed in abundance as a player as he became the most capped player in Welsh rugby, scored a record number of tries and led his country more than anyone else.
With the Lions he went on three tours, won two series and is one of only six Lions to have won a Test match in South Africa, New Zealand and Australia. No wonder he has a place in the World Rugby Hall of Fame.
But he is also guided by a sense that the WRU has lost its direction, lost its connection with grassroots clubs and grassroots rugby folk, and that it is time to re-navigate.
Evans has already written an open letter to the member clubs, following the plea sent out by Gareth Davies, and now he wants to expand on why a Union with a heavy-handed corporate style, must once again feel human.
“Jamie Roberts talked about it this week and he’s still a current player,” he says. “Rugby relies on mass participation.
“We should not be concentrating just on elites – at any age group. We cannot be sending out the message, you are no longer valid.
“That whole culture needs to change. We have to say, you are not only important, you are critical to our game.
“So, we need to bring in some empathy, some understanding, but also some dynamism.
“A transformation is required in the how the game is run and the interaction between our critical elements – clubs, players and volunteers. They are the keystones in our game and we can’t allow those to deteriorate.
“Look at New Zealand. From top to bottom, family, community and respect permeates through everything they do. That’s what their coaches all talk about – a sport sustaining itself in a nation’s heart.
Would certainly like the hair back! Warm memories of an electric day💪 https://t.co/DCKr48A0kQ
— Ieuan Evans MBE (@ieuan_evans14) July 26, 2020
“In New Zealand, they make the pinnacle more sustainable. The All Blacks are connected to everyone, not separate from them.”
The member clubs in Wales are already in revolt to some extent and 34 of them have called for an emergency general meeting, due to take place later this year.
But Evans is adamant, their concerns are not just financial and they want more than simply a larger slice of the pie.
“We should do all this together, as a nation and as a rugby community. But it’s not just about giving bigger cheques,” he adds.
“Post Covid-19, it’s going to be a massive challenge for Welsh rugby to recover and flourish, but clubs, players and volunteers need to know they are part of the whole solution, that they are valued for the role they play.
“That’s where the volunteers give their time and where the young players develop. During the pandemic, individual clubs have taken a lead and been at the forefront of those values, but we need a national, inclusive approach.
“Our communities are being challenged at the moment and our clubs are at the forefront of that. We can help drive the social and economic well-being.
“Yes, international rugby has to be at the forefront of any business plan. But you can’t take it in isolation.
“The clubs are the ones who sell the tickets, they are the ones who create the fans. They buy the satellite dishes, they show the games, they spread the interest and so it’s a circle – a virtuous circle, not a pyramid where they have been placed at the bottom.”
That idea of a flatter organisation, less hierarchical, less corporate – perhaps even less smug – and more flexible means Evans is open to the idea of radical change, whether that be more regional leagues below Welsh Premiership level, or a re-shaping of the four regions, and even of the Pro14.
It is, he says, about the level of connectivity and for roles to be understood and appreciated – rather than taken for granted.
“The regions, for instance, are critically dependent on the rest of the game. As much as the elite end of the game is the showpiece, it is about the betterment of the game as a whole,” he claims.
Rugby – WRU National Representative election – Please read message circulated at the request of Ieuan Evans MBE https://t.co/o4if133vZq
— All Wales Sport (@AllWalesSport) August 11, 2020
“For them, it is more than just putting out a regional XV every week, it’s about strengthening relationships – and proper relationships are more than one directional.
“As for the Premiership, they look like lost souls. They are not quite sure what they are meant to be.
“But they are assets and they are part of our strength and we shouldn’t be in the business of discarding them. But at present they are unsure of the role they are meant to fulfil.
“They are floundering, but they could offer so much more if they were allowed to.”
As a player, Evans lived on his wits. He certainly wasn’t the biggest wing in world rugby, or even the fastest. But he was among the very best because he had a sense of where the ball was heading and a priceless ability to always make sure his own interventions made an impact.
Now, he would like to do the same as an administrator – a rugby man, but with a distinctly Welsh perspective.
The salmon of the Teifi as he was known to Welsh poets, wants a Welsh approach to swimming against the tide.
“We are different to England. They are 54 million people, France are 70 million and we are 3.2 million,” he adds.
“We have to be flexible and to some extent non-conformist. Our tradition is unorthodox. Our strength has always been the club game.
“National teams provide the shop window and the players enable many people to fall in love with the game. They want to be the next Shane Williams, or the next Jonathan Davies, or Alun Wyn Jones, or Jazz Joyce or Elinor Snowsill.
“But one size doesn’t fit all. We have to be willing to challenge the status quo and find ways to improve things.
“We should constantly questions things. When the clubs question things, it is not personal. It’s because they need to be questioned.”
Gareth Davies is urging the clubs to act conservatively in troubled times and to stick with him. But maybe, just maybe, those clubs will decide it is time to twist and deal the game a new hand.