WRU votes heavily in favour of 'watershed' reforms to save Welsh rugby from toxic culture

Welsh Rugby Union chairman Ieuan Evans (left) and acting chief executive Nigel Walker - Jacob King/PA Wire
Welsh Rugby Union chairman Ieuan Evans (left) and acting chief executive Nigel Walker - Jacob King/PA Wire

The whole of Welsh rugby is able to breathe a little more easily after the member clubs overwhelmingly supported significant plans for governance change at Sunday's EGM in Port Talbot.

The ongoing reputation and future financial viability of the Welsh Rugby Union were both on the line at a venue where 30 years earlier the clubs had passed a vote of no confidence in the union’s General Committee and forced them all to resign.

WRU chair Ieuan Evans and interim CEO Nigel Walker had joined forces with the chairs of the Community Game Board, John Manders, and the Professional Game Board, Malcolm Wall, in touring the nine WRU districts in the build-up to the historic meeting.

The clubs were asked to back a single motion calling for an independent chair to be joined by two new independent non-executive directors on a revamped board of directors that they hope will ultimately have five female representatives.

Evans carries the day with 245 votes in favour, seven against

When the previous chair, Rob Butcher, had put forward a proposal for an independent chair at the AGM in October last week, it fell nine per cent short of the 75 per cent threshold required to get the motion passed. Five months on, Evans and co carried the day with 97.22 per cent of the 252 votes cast (245 in favour, seven against).

With major sponsors ready to walk away, the Welsh Government ready to intervene and public confidence in the WRU at an all-time low, a ‘No’ vote would have been a catastrophe coming against a background of claims of sexism and misogyny raised recently in a BBC Wales investigation.

“We've got very serious issues, let's not understate that. Ieuan and I have had a number of conversations with all stakeholders, not just our sponsors, but Welsh Government, clubs, and regions,” said Walker.

"Those conversations were frank, and we understood the need for change. We conveyed that to the clubs, and the clubs have responded in a very positive fashion.

“It was impossible to overhype an event such as this. We simply had to vote for change otherwise the future of Welsh rugby was in doubt.

"The feelings and emotions at the moment are one of relief rather than jubilation or joy. But this is not the end of it, this is where the hard work starts.

'I loudly applaud them for voting me out of office'

Evans took over as chair only five months ago and has now effectively been voted out of office. He is ready to hand over the baton and believes there will be a queue of candidates to become the first independent chair of the WRU.

“I loudly applaud them for voting me out of office, and I have no doubt there will be people who want to become the new independent chair of the WRU,” said Evans.

“Rugby is embedded in our DNA and plays such an important role in our civic and social lives. I feel this is a wonderful opportunity for a person with drive, enthusiasm and with the right skill set to play a massive role in our future.

“I have more than enough faith in the fact there are quality women out there who are more than capable of filling the roles of Chair and CEO."

High stakes gamble pays off for Evans

The stakes were high as 173 of the WRU’s 282 member clubs gathering at the Princess Royal Theatre, in Port Talbot, with three sponsors contributing up to £10m a year into Welsh rugby, on the verge of walking away.

More importantly, in the eyes of current WRU independent director Henry Englehardt, the billionaire founder of Admiral Insurance, a vote against the motion would have been the WRU voting for sexism. He described it as “a watershed moment”.

“We need to show the world that we aren't some backwards, sexist nation by putting women on the board,” he had told the clubs prior to the meeting.

'Having more women will be a huge help to the board'

"More women on the board will bring a lot of different thinking and different ways of looking at the questions. They will be a huge help to the board."

The clubs were asked to vote on a package of changes that will mean the number of highly skilled, independently appointed people on the WRU board will increase from three to six. That will mean a reduction in the number of elected national or district members on the main board from eight to four.

An independent chair will be recruited and the aspiration is to increase the number of women on the board from the one current member, Catherine Read, to at least five moving forward.

“There will be a transition period and we've given ourselves the deadline of Dec 31. We’re confident that these changes, and the transition period, will be done and dusted well before [then],” said Walker.

"You'd expect the independent chair to have a say on the appointment of the independent non-executive directors and the new CEO. Certain parts of the process will move forward together, then once the chair is identified the other parts will then be concluded."

Walker has proved in his turbulent eight weeks in the hottest seat in Welsh sport that he has all the attributes to be considered as a long-term successor for the recently departed Steve Phillips and could well be a leading candidate to swap his role as Performance Director to full time CEO.

As for the current chair, Evans, he will have to watch from the sidelines after winning one of the most important votes in the 142-year history of the WRU

“Governance doesn't stop, it’s ongoing, like painting the Forth Bridge. We will constantly review, constantly challenge, and constantly scrutinise for the benefit of us all.”