WRU ‘frittered away’ £84m rights windfall on a hotel and a zipwire
The Welsh Rugby Union is being blasted for “frittering away” an £84 million TV rights windfall.
It used the cash to help buy a Cardiff hotel and build a zipwire attraction on the roof of the Millennium Stadium when Wales’ cash-strapped regions were struggling to compete.
The money came from a TV rights deal with private equity company CVC Capital Partners who have spent £700 million building a rugby portfolio which includes stakes in the Six Nations, England’s Premiership and the United Rugby Championship where Wales’s regions play.
Meanwhile the WRU is cutting the cash paid out to its struggling regions from £23.5 million to £18 million by next season, with playing squad budgets down from around £7m per year in 2020 to no more than £4.5m in 2024/24, according to author Seimon Williams in his new book Welsh Rugby: What Went Wrong? which charts the erratic progress of the game in Wales from the dawn of the professional era.
According to Williams, the WRU decided not to use the windfall to support its regional sides but to invest in long-term ventures such as the hotel, the zipwire, a proposed stadium roofwalk and an interactive rugby museum.
In contrast in Ireland Connacht, a rugby backwater, has been nurtured by the Irish Rugby Football Union until now they have topped the United Rugby Championship this season, qualified for the top-tier European Champions Cup and three of their players are Ireland stars.
They’re currently seventh in the Championship, ahead of all four Welsh regions with Dragons and Scarlets propping up the rest of the table.
Indeed the Scarlets’ poor start – with an overall points difference of minus 26 per game – is statistically the worst ever start to a URC season by any team in the competition’s 20-year history.
If rugby in Ireland is booming then the picture painted in Wales by the recent Rafferty Report is very different and Williams dissects the reasons for the bleak outlook in his book.
It is a comprehensive telling of wasted years, missed chances and vicious infighting as he charts every tortured, stumbling step of Wales’s journey into that hard-headed new world of professionalism.
David Moffett, the Aussie who was Chief Executive Officer of the Welsh Rugby Union from 2002 until his resignation in 2005, recalls: “The Welsh are always at war with themselves. It’s bizarre, because if they actually stopped to think, and said, ‘You know, we’re going to actually unite, as Welsh people,’ they’d be special. But it’s never going to happen.”
The latest crisis was triggered just weeks ago when the Rafferty Report landed and Williams said: “Sport Resolutions’ independent review, led by Dame Anne Rafferty, into the culture of the Welsh Rugby Union proves a dispiriting, if unsurprising, read.
“It was ultimately triggered by a BBC Wales Investigates programme in which damning accusations were made against the WRU. It appeared to be an organisation riven by a culture of misogyny, sexism, homophobia and racism.”
The book doesn’t make for cheerful reading but is a valuable addition to the findings of the report in which one WRU Director admitted: “The WRU Board was both frightened of what they had to do and unaware of what they had to do: If I ask the right question, I don’t know what to do with the answer. So, it’s much better not to ask the question”.
Williams said: “The Rafferty Report describes how an atmosphere of powerlessness and fear stalked the corridors for a not insignificant number of WRU staff. The report finds that the WRU could be an unforgiving, even vindictive place.
“It is the offhand, almost casual nature of the misogyny, in particular, that is so difficult to understand. Many instances are highlighted, including insinuations that a female member of staff had slept her way into a senior job, and of homophobic slurs directed at, particularly, women in same-sex relationships.
“And it is clear that a culture of – utterly unwarranted – arrogance has gripped the WRU for years.”
He cites the treatment of Amanda Blanc – then-chair of the Professional Rugby Board and a sitting member of the WRU Board – as beggaring belief and in testimony which is reproduced in full the reader is treated to an astonishing litany of disrespect, of condescension and of ignorance.
Williams’ book was inspired by the events of early 2023, events which contributed to the establishment of the Rafferty Inquiry and it highlights many of the lowlights of the WRU’s dark journey through the years of professionalism.
They include that use of the £84 million TV windfall when Wales’ four cash-strapped regions will have their funding cut to that £18 million by next season when the four Irish provinces receive £50 million and the two Scottish pro sides £20 million of central payments by their Unions.
On the pitch a recent weekend of home matches against opposition from South Africa, Ireland and Scotland saw all four Welsh regions go down to defeat – the first time since the formation of the current regional teams in 2003 that all four had lost at home on the same weekend.
Williams said: “It was unfair to keep the money away from the regions at a time when the game in Wales is in such financial peril.
“If the national team is getting smashed and the Welsh regions are getting smashed then the attractiveness of the product that is Welsh rugby is diminished.
“For most of the last 25 years there has usually been at least one Welsh team that has been competitive in Europe but we are miles off that now and with budget cuts the regions are going to be less and less competitive.
“It’s difficult to see how that gets turned round. The WRU have just published accounts that show they turned over more than £100 million but every area of the game is struggling to survive.
“They have now had to divert money back to the regions but it all seems too little too late.”
It’s a subject that also infuriates Stephen Jones, of The Sunday Times, who has written the foreword to the book in which he says: “The triumph of Seimon Williams is that he has codified all the horror decisions, the useless administration, all the silly calls and self-interest 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.”
Williams, a Welsh speaker from Waunarlwydd, who has spent much of his working life at Bangor University and is a longtime contributor to the rugby fansite Gwladrugby, certainly brings an academic rigour to his research but the book is not a dry and dusty research tome.
The structure of the game in Wales has been a botched mess made more difficult by the comparative lack of cash and worsened by the short-sightedness and self-interest of administrators and club diehards.
Williams tells how way back in 1999 the Welsh representatives, Glanmor Griffiths and Terry Cobner, stormed out of a meeting with the top English clubs because they were only offered five places out of 20 in the two divisions of a planned Anglo-Welsh League.
That proved to be a massive misjudgement – Welsh rugby had strong and long-established links with the big English clubs, many of them just over the border in Gloucester, Bath and Bristol, and an Anglo-Welsh competition would have been a natural arena for them.
Instead the Welsh regions stumble along in the wake of the Irish, the Scots and the South Africans in the United Rugby Championship with few if any fans making the long journeys to watch their sides getting thrashed in Pretoria or Johannesburg – or Dublin or Glasgow.
Gatland has again woven his hard-nosed magic at international level, helped by a core of talented and committed players, but below that level life is far from rosy for the regions
Seimon Williams clearly has a deep devotion to the game in Wales but he warns: “For Welsh rugby to survive, let alone thrive, it must break the unhealthy habit of 140 years and unite, at all levels.
“The difficulties of the past year could amount to no more than a pause before Wales disappears as a serious rugby nation. Or it could be the springboard from which we reset and revive.”
His book is a tremendous and thorough telling of Welsh rugby’s collision with the professionalising of the game, it is wonderfully thorough and he has spoken to very many influential and knowledgeable people.
Welsh Rugby: What Went Wrong? by Seimon Williams is published by Y Lolfa, price £9.99.
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