Rugby is a gladiatorial game – as Wales’s Six Nations match today against Ireland will surely prove. But even the greatest commentators in the sport, such as the late Eddie Butler and Cliff Morgan, would wince reading the script of Welsh rugby’s spiralling decline.
Wales has been more reliant on rugby to form the guardrails of national identity than almost any other country. Now the sport faces an ‘existential crisis’ in Wales. If anything those words, from the new head of the Welsh Rugby Union (WRU), are an understatement. They follow a BBC Wales investigation into the WRU last month which unearthed serious allegations of misogyny, sexism and racism inside the governing body. The former head of women’s rugby in Wales, Charlotte Wathan, has slammed the union’s ‘toxic culture’ of sexism, telling the BBC that she considered committing suicide after her experiences. She recalled a WRU male colleague joking in front of others that he wanted to ‘rape’ her. Another former employee of the WRU said that she wrote a manual for her husband in case she killed herself.
Now a national institution is on the brink of collapse. After the documentary aired in late January the union could only apologise. The union’s then chief executive Steve Phillips added that it investigated claims with proper procedures but had – stating the obvious – ‘fallen short’ of presenting Welsh rugby in the best light. The reputation, governance and culture of the WRU was in such disarray that calls for investigations and sackings dominated Welsh radio and television.
Mark Drakeford demanded ‘urgent and transparent action’; a chorus of outrage echoed by his cabinet ministers, while his predecessor as first minister Carwyn Jones said a Senedd inquiry should be launched. Sponsors of the WRU voiced grave concerns. The four Welsh rugby regions – Scarlets, Ospreys, Cardiff and the Dragons – wanted the entire governing board gone.