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Wales Online
Wales Online
Ben James

Where next for the WRU, who else could go and candidates to take on the top job after Steve Phillips' departure

At 6am on Sunday, the announcement was made by the Welsh Rugby Union, confirming what many had suspected for some time.

As the week went on, and the noise grew louder, it became obvious that Steve Phillips could no longer carry on as the chief executive of the WRU.

That much had been apparent for a while, if truth be known, with the four professional sides and a number of other community clubs joining the growing number of calls for change after allegations of misogyny, sexism and racism within the WRU.

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Welsh rugby is never short of a crisis or two, but trust at the moment does appear to be at an all-time low.

So what happens in response? Is this just the start of significant change?

What of the future for chairman Ieuan Evans and his Board?

Who are the contenders to become new full-time chief executive?

Just where does Welsh rugby go next?

So many questions that still need answering. We take a look at some of the issues that need to be resolved.

The accusations and how they'll be dealt with

Let's begin with the allegations that were made public last week. The focal point of the string of testimonies was that of former WRU general manager of women's rugby Charlotte Wathan. The most shocking part was the alleged comment by a male colleague that he wanted to rape her, as well as the fact that he is still employed by the WRU and Ms Wathan's insistence that neither he nor other key witnesses were interviewed as part of the investigation process.

That alone makes the prospect of changing culture a difficult one. The WRU said it had hired an external legal expert to probe Ms Wathan's grievance and that it found the claims to be unsubstantiated - meaning it had not been proven either way. They also insisted that the man said to have made the comment was eventually interviewed.

They were also fairly robust in their response, taking issue with the BBC over airing comments from an interview they could not respond to due to the confidentiality terms of the settlement agreement signed by both the governing body and Ms Wathan in December which ended a looming employment tribunal.

As new allegations came to light in the BBC's documentary, the tone shifted somewhat - with the union apologising and a review of procedures being promised.

Those new claims included the damning reveal of Amanda Blanc's resignation speech as chair of Wales' Professional Rugby Board - a "smoking gun" that Phillips had previously denied being aware of. It referenced her disappointment into the review of the women's game in 2021 and spoke about an elected WRU member who allegedly said that women should "know their place in the kitchen and stick to the ironing."

WRU chair Ieuan Evans said he was setting up an external task force to review the WRU's "culture, systems and structures" with Sport Wales advising on the make up and remit of the panel. Evans is also to be questioned in the Senedd this week over the accusations.

All of these allegations will be addressed within those investigations - which is why this is perhaps just the beginning, rather than the end. Evans said on Sunday that he's hopeful of showing change sooner rather than later.

"The days of incremental changes are behind us," he said. "We’re now looking forward to making significant changes in what we do and how we behave, in terms of the cultural review, but also operationally. I believe we can do that. We need people to come along with us, as we’re a union of member clubs."

Crucially, as has become abundantly clear this week, real change is only likely to be forced from the outside, rather than from within.

Who could be the next CEO?

Following the confirmation of Phillips' departure, former Wales wing and current performance director Nigel Walker was confirmed on an interim basis. Upon taking the role, Walker acknowledged the issues facing the game right now.

"There is no doubt that Welsh rugby is facing an existential crisis," Walker said. "This has been a wake-up call."

Walker is under no illusions of the task facing him. He is relatively qualified for the job, having worked within sports administration for years. He was previously national director at the English Institute of Sport.

And he has, as Evans pointed out, made great strides with the women's game since taking over. Under his watch, professional contracts have been handed out to players.

But is he really the long-term option? Perhaps not, some would argue, given the fact that he has been part of this regime. So exactly who the long-term option is likely to be is hard to say at this point.

The WRU may choose to go external. Amanda Blanc, despite being tired of the culture she left, has remained interested in Welsh rugby from afar, occasionally tweeting about the game. Were it possible, getting someone with her business intellect and nous could be viewed as a smart move.

That could be easier said than done, of course, with how things panned out the first time.

Others who might be interested in the role are current Professional Rugby Board chair and former Harlequins man Malcolm Wall.

Another ex-Harlequins employee, Mark Evans - who served as CEO at the Premiership club before taking up a similar role with Fijian Druja in Super Rugby Pacific - might also be a candidate.

Hayley Parsons, founder of GoCompare, became the first woman to serve on Cardiff's board when she was appointed a non-executive director in 2019. She delivered the strongest blow to the union, with a letter to Evans endorsed by all four professional sides that called upon Phillips and the board to leave.

Is she an option? Is Dragons chair David Buttress, who has frequently spoken about the changes he believes are required for the game to thrive in this country?

For a role of this magnitude, the WRU could find an outstanding candidate from outside of Welsh rugby applying.

Whoever does take on the job will have to deal with the current governance structure. Buttress himself tweeted recently about the CEO role and the biggest sticking point to attracting people to the role.

"We have some great people available, the black book of the PRB is top class," he posted. "It would be a highly competitive process, as it should be. We can attract world-class people, but we need to give them the governance structure otherwise they’ll keep leaving."

Are Ieuan Evans and the WRU board secure?

That brings us nicely onto the next point. What of Evans and the rest of the WRU board?

It wasn't just Phillips' resignation that people were calling for, of course. And it's important to remember that Evans initially publicly backed Phillips to stay. That's the sort of decision that is unlikely to be forgotten in the current climate.

But, for now at least - and intentions can often change quickly in this sort of news cycle - it appears no-one else will follow Phillips out of the door.

Former Wales wing Evans told BBC Radio Wales on Sunday morning that he wouldn't be stepping down, nor would any of the board. However, he does want a more diverse board as they "take responsibilities". In his own words, he needs to "lead this governance change" ahead of a extraordinary general meeting proposed for March.

His predecessor, Rob Butcher, tried to get a move to allow the union to hire an independent chair past the member clubs, but he didn't reach the required number of votes. However, Evans will try again, keen to force that change through sooner rather than later.

“The board will be taking defined governance changes to an EGM, planned for March, because our governing body, it’s also a business," he said on Sunday. "A significant business and a significant deliverer to the economy of Wales.

"We intend to go out to the clubs and compel and convince them that this is the course of action we need to take for our well-being and future moving forward. It’s so important for all of us in Wales that is the case.

"It’s now up to us to go out to clubs and drive those changes. We will be going out with defined changes and one of those changes will be to find an independent. My true belief is that this organisation needs an independent chair and I will be driving the charge for that."

What it means for the financial impasse with the regions?

What has been understandably lost in the horrendous allegations of the last week is that the financial future of the four professional sides is still at stake. The concerns of the regions aren't going away and time is very much of the essence on that front.

Cardiff, Dragons, Scarlets and Ospreys had endorsed Parsons' letter calling for Phillips to go. It was an indictment of the broken relationship between the parties.

The four regions and the WRU signed heads of terms on a new six-year financial framework last week but the package has not yet been signed off. Phillips said last week that he hoped it would be in the next month, but that was before his departure.

Former Dragons boss Bernard Jackman wrote in his column in the Irish Independent: "Three of the four Welsh professional teams are rumoured to be only months away from going into administration unless this deal is signed, and I admire their conviction to put their own interests aside to ensure Welsh rugby has better equality, diversity and inclusivity standards."

And while there is undoubtedly an element of delight from the regions that Phillips is gone, it does leave them in a treacherous position with no guarantee of when a deal will be finally signed in ink, rather than just a verbal agreement. Until that happens, the financial situation will continue to be bleak - with concerns over players leaving Wales as contracts cannot be tabled.

Speaking just before the Ospreys clash with Zebre, Ospreys coach Toby Booth admitted he was hopeful that the change could result in a deal being sorted sooner rather than later.

The fact that Walker has taken over Phillips is an interesting sidenote, given how outspoken previously he had been about the regions not receiving enough money from the union. Now the shoe is firmly on the other foot.

Is the situation salvageable?

The news that Phillips had gone became a case of when, not if, at a certain point last week, such was the widespread shock and outrage. That simply won't go away from one departure.

What has become clear in the last seven days is that confidence and trust in the union is at an all-time low. To change that will require root-and-branch change.

Changing the governance structure is one thing, and the next step would be to publish the Board Governance report conducted last year - referred to by Parsons in her letter to Evans - that "outlined major concerns and issues with the governance structure".

But implementing cultural change will be a harder thing to manage. Trust is a difficult thing to earn. Despite one resignation, the fear from some will be that crisis still reigns in Welsh rugby.


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