‘Nobody was listening’: Wales kick off Six Nations under a cloud of scandal

A Six Nations weekend in the Welsh capital is usually one fizzing with fun, excitement and wild partying. Visit Wales’s description is not too far wide of the mark: “There’s nowhere on earth like Cardiff on international rugby day.”

But Saturday’s tournament opener against Ireland has been overshadowed by a harrowing sexism and misogyny scandal that has engulfed the Welsh Rugby Union (WRU), the governing body of the sport in Wales.

The game is reeling from the testimony of women in a BBC Wales Investigates documentary about a “toxic” culture at the WRU, with one former employee alleging that a colleague told her in front of others that he wanted to rape her, and another woman saying she wrote a manual for her husband in case she killed herself.

“I do think it casts a shadow over the Six Nations,” said Jennifer Burke-Davies, a Cardiff council cabinet member. She said the women’s evidence was damning and disturbing. “But as a woman I’m not particularly shocked. I have spent time in and around rugby. My family is a rugby family. There is culture of toxic masculinity. It allows an environment in which unacceptable comments are made. But as a woman, am I surprised that these conversations have taken place? Absolutely not.”

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Tonia Antoniazzi, a Welsh Labour MP and former Wales rugby international, has been raising the issue for months, bringing it up in the House of Commons almost a year ago.

“I had meetings with Welsh government about it, I’ve had conversations with many of the women involved, more than were in the documentary,” she said. “The change should have happened but nobody was listening. When there’s so much money involved, people will act to save their own backs. The behaviours of the individuals at the WRU are totally abhorrent. We’ve got to see institutional change happen.”

Antoniazzi believes that fans will still be able to separate the team from the governing body and enjoy the Six Nations. “I really hope this hasn’t affected the team and they can focus on the game in hand. I’m so excited about it – like a big kid. This is the highlight of our rugby year.”

Lynn Glaister, the chair of the CF10 Rugby Trust, which represents supporters of Cardiff Rugby and Cardiff RFC, said she had been shocked by the detail of the allegations. “But not shocked by the fact there is misogyny.”

Glaister said that in her 35 years of attending games, she had not experienced misogyny herself – and she is planning a Six Nations party this weekend, determined not to be put off the sport she loves. “Everyone mingles, there’s not that much swearing because kids are around. It feels safe. But these allegations are a real knock to the sport’s image,” she said.

The WRU, which has a £100m turnover and governs 80,000 players and 300 clubs, says it has begun to take action. The chief executive, Steve Phillips resigned, and Nigel Walker, the former Cardiff and Wales winger, stepped up as acting CEO. The organisation announced it wanted its next 12-person board to contain at least five women (it currently has one).

While Cardiff was gearing up for the visit of the Irish, Walker and another Welsh rugby legend, Ieuan Evans, now WRU chairman, were summoned by the Senedd committee with responsibility for sport.

Their evidence was stark. Walker admitted there had been “warning signs” and said the organisation had been “in denial”. He told the committee: “I think in any organisation, especially a large organisation like the Welsh Rugby Union, it’s possible for things to happen over a period of time and for people to turn a blind eye and not to address those problems.”

He accepted that the running of the sport was dominated by men. “It’s the uncle of the person who ran the club last year or five years ago, 10 years ago, the nephew of somebody else – we need to broaden that out and make it more open. But that will take time.”

Evans said the WRU realised it had disappointed the “rugby family” across Wales. “We’re at an existential point in our history. This is a Damascene moment for us.” He said an external taskforce would be created to review accusations, which would be headed by a woman from a legal background.

Also summoned to the meeting was the Welsh government’s deputy minister for sport, Dawn Bowden. She said she discussed had sexism with the WRU last year but had not seen formal complaints or allegations, and so what she could do was limited. She was accused by opposition politicians of not doing enough when it was clear there were deep problems.

Dan Allsobrook, an experienced grassroots rugby safeguarding officer and a member of the rugby fans’ network Gwladrugby, watched the meeting and was not convinced by the promises of change. “Misogyny, sexism, sexual harassment have been systemic problems at the WRU for many years,” he said. “The WRU’s modus operandi has always been to silence and shut down. The board in its current form needs to be disbanded.”

The WRU move that has grabbed the most attention this week, however, was its order that the 1968 Tom Jones hit Delilah be removed from the matchday playlist because it refers to violence against a woman. The Tories in Wales criticised the move as “virtue signalling”.

Gary Corp, the manager of the City Arms pub across the road from the Principality Stadium, said he planned to blast the song on his outdoor speakers. “I’m playing it, mate. I’m sick and tired of people saying what we can and can’t do,” he said. “The WRU are in trouble and want to be seen doing the right thing. They’re digging themselves a hole.”

The controversies continued to pile up as the Six Nations opener approached. Some people were upset that a popular mural near the stadium depicting a young black woman was painted over with an image of the Welsh rugby international George North, together with an advert for a luxury watch.

And more than 7,000 people have signed a petition calling for the WRU to begin a rebrand by getting rid of its three feathers emblem, which is associated with the Prince of Wales.

Businesspeople in the city were worried that the mood during a key weekend was going to be muted. Bob Rice, the owner of the Castle Welsh Crafts shop, said: “All this isn’t going to help the atmosphere. There’s a bit of a cloud over it. We’ve got to hope they get it sorted.”

Jon Williams, of the Rugby Shop Wales, said: “It’s not exactly helpful. We’ve heard some terrible things but I think people will still be able to get behind the team.”

Near the entrance to Cardiff Market, an Irish flag was being flown to greet the visitors. “Everyone ought to be able to feel safe and protected at work,” said Mary Kemble, the owner of Crockers Brunch Bar, which should be heaving with diners just before kick-off on Saturday. “It’s good we are talking about this now and I hope it won’t take the gloss of what should be a great sporting weekend.”