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Welsh Rugby: What Went Wrong? . . . New Book Tries To Exlpain The Mess And Suggests A Way It Might Be Cleared Up

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It was a dirty job, but somebody had to do it. Sift through the debris, the buried bodies and broken schemes of Welsh rugby over the past 40 years and try to make some sense of it.
Step forward, Seimon Williams, who took on that task with his newly published, book, “Welsh Rugby . . . What Went Wrong?”
Born and raised on the traditional rugby supporting border between Swansea and Llanelli, Seimon writes for and co-edits the Gwladrugby Welsh rugby supporters blog, contributing additional pieces to written, radio and television media.  Now based in north-west Wales, he is a project manager working in the fields of mental health and suicide prevention. This is his first book and here he explains the motivation behind it.

 

The 2022-23 season may just have been the bleakest in Welsh rugby history.

In late February 2023, the national men’s team’s players were threatening not to turn out for that weekend’s Six Nations game against England.

Endless prevarication between the WRU and the professional clubs about finalising a new financial agreement for elite rugby meant that over 70 players had no contracts beyond the end of June.

They had no idea where, or even if, they would be playing professional rugby this season.

This followed hot on the heels of an excoriating BBC Wales Investigates programme which had exposed a culture of misogyny, sexism, racism, homophobia and good, old-fashioned bullying within the WRU.

Which in turn had followed the dismissal of the men’s team’s head coach, Wayne Pivac, after unprecedented home defeats to Italy and Georgia the previous year.

His replacement, Warren Gatland, couldn’t wave a magic wand this time. The professional clubs were struggling too. And there were ongoing stories about dissatisfaction within the women’s game – of a lack of care taken by the administration, of failing to reward players with professional contracts despite repeated promises, and of an inability on the WRU’s part to publish and implement a review of the women’s game which it had commissioned a couple of years previously.

I had been blogging sporadically on these and other issues on the Gwlad rugby site for many years and had long thought that there was an interesting book to be written about the story of Welsh rugby in recent years.

So, when the commissioning editor at Y Lolfa contacted me, out of the blue, to ask whether I would be interested in writing about what had gone wrong in Welsh rugby, I jumped at the chance.

That book – ‘Welsh Rugby: What Went Wrong?’ – was released on 20 November. It looks at the issues which have seen Welsh rugby stumble from crisis to crisis over the past 40 years.

At how a nation which led the rugby world in the 1970s declined into the fractured, riven, divided rugby nation of today. At how occasional successes at club, regional and Test level were achieved despite the system, not because of it, and did little more than paper over the cracks. At, fundamentally, what went wrong.

Given the enormous changes the game in Wales has experienced – the decline of the national and then club teams from the giddy heights of the 1970s, the departure of players to rugby league, the creation of leagues and the impact that had on the historic organic club fixture lists, professionalism, the turning away from links with English clubs in favour of Irish and Scottish teams, the push towards regionalisation, the relative success of the early regional landscape and the endless battles between the professional clubs and the WRU – I found it strange that no book existed which put all of these events in context.

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In fact, I found that problematic. While the WRU’s centenary in 1980/81 saw the release of several books looking back at the first 100 years, the public record of the ensuing 42 years or so is extremely patchy and piecemeal.

There are some references to major events in the autobiographies of key people, and there have been some reasonably detailed long-read newspaper articles about some of the major events of the period, but it isn’t possible to fully understand how all these events fit together without an understanding of the broader context.

And so, discussions about the current and future direction of the game are therefore constrained by at times partial, at times inaccurate, recollections of past events.

My intention from the outset, therefore, was to attempt to set out – as dispassionately and factually as possible – the story of Welsh rugby in recent decades.

While the understanding of motivations for particular acts or events will necessarily differ, I wanted to accurately record what happened.

The book therefore attempts to tease out why Wales was ill-equipped when the game went ‘open’ in 1995; why attempts to establish an Anglo-Welsh league failed; why miracle-working coaches from New Zealand were not, in fact, magicians who could circumvent a failing domestic system; why we ended up with the five mishmash teams of 2003, some standalone clubs, some merged clubs and why one of them closed after just one season; why the successful ‘regional’ or professional clubs of the 2000s declined to the struggling entities of 2023; and why those teams and their governing body have appeared to be at war for much of the past 15 years.

And, of course, added to the pot in recent years has been the mismanagement of the women’s game and the toxic culture of the Union for, especially, female members of staff.

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Many of these issues remain as fiercely contested by invested supporters now as they ever were. The book therefore has an extensive, 23-pages-long list of references which the reader can investigate to clarify some issues.

Some of these offer differing, and sometimes contradictory, views on events, but I felt that it was important to show my workings.

The interviews were designed to explore some of these key events in more detail, and I hope they add to the narrative. They certainly provide quite an insight into the machinations of the various key players.

The book’s findings are stark. In setting all these events in their chronological order, it became clear that the game has been ill-served by the majority of its administrators.

The Sunday Times rugby journalist Stephen Jones asks – in the foreword, which he has kindly provided for this book – whether the reader could name three great administrators over the period, beyond Ray Williams and Gareth Davies. T

The structure of the Union has militated against innovative leaders – when they have tried to make significant and far-reaching changes, they have – to paraphrase Ron Jones, quoted in the book – enacted the revenge of the blazers, voted down proposed changed and thrown out their proposer.

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As Stephen Jones goes on to say in his foreword, this book takes ‘all the horror decisions, the useless administration, all the silly calls and self-interest and codified it all into one authoritative, powerfully-researched book which deserves to become seen as the history of years in which Welsh rugby has always teetered on the edge of disaster.

But there would be little point to a book such as this without some thought to what happens next. Exploring the dysfunctionality of the administration and governance of the game over the past 40 years was a maddening process, and while 2023 may well be the worst year in the history of the sport in Wales, there are signs that corners are being turned.

The Rafferty Report and it fall-out have focused minds in Westgate Street and beyond, such that there is now a smaller, better-skilled and largely independent Board to govern the game.

The new Board has undertaken to implement the report’s recommendations in full. Greater attention is being paid to the women’s game, investment is beginning to follow, and the creation of three regional women’s teams offers an opportunity for the next generation of players to progress through the ranks. I

n the men’s game, there is a recognition that the gap between the professional and semi-professional and community game has become too vast – the Elite Domestic Competition may not be the answer, and it is currently under discussion – but it at least suggests a desire to address some of the game’s historic failings.

However, in the elite men’s game, we may not have yet hit rock-bottom. The professional teams’ playing budgets will reduce from over £6 million per team a couple of years ago to £5.2m this season and – unless something changes – £4.5m next.

They were already struggling to keep up with their counterparts elsewhere in Europe – remaining competitive is likely to become ever more difficult in the months and years ahead.

At national men’s level, retirements and unavailability – caused, to a significant degree, by the financial pressures visited upon the professional teams – is likely to affect the national team’s performances in the short term.

If the existing PRA endures, turning the ship around will be extremely difficult. From there, there is a real risk that crowds will continue to decline, sponsors and broadcasters will drift away, and Wales disappears as a serious rugby country.

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As we look towards 2024, there is hope. But there is much to do.

‘Welsh Rugby: What Went Wrong?’ is published by Y Lolfa and is available now in paperback and as an e-book.

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