A Year in Crisis Takes Its Toll on Welsh Rugby

A Year in Crisis Takes Its Toll on Welsh Rugby

In what should have been a heads-down year for Wales’s rugby team in preparation for Friday’s start of the World Cup, the pinnacle of what many see as the country’s national sport, Welsh rugby has instead been facing somewhat of an annus horribilis.

In the past year, the team’s on-field misfortunes have been compounded by a series of off-field issues. The Welsh Rugby Union (W.R.U.), the game’s governing body in the country, has been rocked by a sexism scandal and its chief executive’s resignation. A national team coach was replaced, players threatened to strike over contractual disputes, and the nation’s regional teams have been struggling financially.

“The last six months, in particular, have been tough,” said Nigel Walker, who was appointed as acting chief executive officer of the W.R.U. in January. “Probably the toughest six months in the history of the Welsh Rugby Union.”

The sport of rugby in Wales — a country with a population of just over three million — can be traced back to the 1850s. Its history includes the “golden era” that emerged more than a century later. Between 1969 and 1979, when the game was still amateur, Welsh rugby dominated the Northern Hemisphere, losing just seven games in its top tournament, the Five Nations, and producing world-class players, many of whom originated from working-class mining communities.

“The rugby club was always the heart of the valley or the town, and any conversation you had with someone who was a little bit older and wiser than you always seemed to be directed toward rugby and the Welsh team,” said Shane Williams, who played 87 times for Wales and was voted World Rugby Player of the Year in 2008.

“It’s almost like a religion,” he said. “Everyone knows what rugby is; everyone knows all the rugby players that are playing for their country; and it just seemed to be the most important thing you wanted to speak about when you were young.”

After a barren spell that ran from the 1980s until the early 2000s — during which time the sport became professionalized in 1995 — the W.R.U., which provides funding across all levels of the sport, decided that cash and talent were spread too thinly across the nine first-class club teams that were based in Welsh towns and cities. Some top-tier teams had seen their attendances drop into the hundreds.

In 2003, the club teams were condensed into five — later becoming four — elite regional teams created in the hope of competing against wealthier European rivals.

This restructuring was followed by another wave of success for the national team. It won the Six Nations (Italy was added in 2000) six times between 2005 and 2021. Under Coach Warren Gatland, the team also reached two World Cup semifinals and was briefly ranked the No. 1 team in the world.

But despite this period of success for the international team, complaints of mistreatment from female employees of the W.R.U. started to become public, adding to persistent financial concerns at the regional level, where Welsh talent is produced and nurtured.

“We were starting to see the erosion of our base and our players and starting to struggle with finances,” said Lynn Glaister, the chair of the CF10 Rugby Trust, a supporters group for Cardiff Rugby, one of the four regional teams, which reported losses of 2.2 million pounds (about $2.8 million) during the 2021-22 season. The Scarlets, another regional team based in Llanelli, reported losses of 1.8 million pounds during that period.

In 2022, the national team performed poorly, losing to Italy and at home to the nation of Georgia. Some fans, tired of a lack of success for their regional teams and looking for answers on their future funding plans, called for the W.R.U. chief executive, Steve Phillips, to step down. (The W.R.U. generated nearly half of its income from staging international matches.)

Then, in January 2023, a BBC Wales investigation included a number of former W.R.U. employees making claims of bullying and sexism at work, as well as incidents of racism and homophobia. Days after the program aired, Phillips resigned, with regions, players, sponsors and members of parliament calling on the W.R.U. to take action. The union ordered an external independent review of the accusations.

The next month, players’ financial concerns came to the fore, when the Welsh squad threatened to strike before a home match against England, which would have reportedly lost the W.R.U. more than £9 million had the game not been played.

The strike was avoided after the W.R.U. and players reached an agreement on the structure of contracts, an easing of rules to allow Welsh players to join clubs outside of the country and granting the Welsh Rugby Players Association a seat on the W.R.U.’s Professional Rugby Board. The game went ahead. Wales lost.

Among the grievances behind the potential strike was also a delay in a new six-year financial agreement between the W.R.U. and its regions. Dozens of players who were soon to be out of contract were uncertain about their futures because their teams, not knowing their funding plan, were unable to offer guarantees. The team’s captain, Ken Owens, called Welsh rugby a “laughingstock.”

On March 31, a new six-year deal was then signed between the W.R.U. and the regions, which laid out a plan that among other things reduced salary caps for each team from £5.2 million during the 2024 season to £4.5 million the following year.

“I am on record saying that we will not have a strong Welsh national team unless we have strong regions,” Walker said. “I am a supporter of the regions. But I am also here to safeguard the interests of Welsh rugby. I’m not going to bankrupt Welsh rugby to give some supporters the level of funding for their region that they think they deserve. I’m here to try and achieve that balance.”

Walker said that the off-field events of this year have accelerated some preplanned internal changes, and also led to others. The W.R.U. has committed to a target of having at least five women on its 12-person board. (Eleven of the current 12 board members are male.) In August, the W.R.U. announced that Abi Tierney, a senior official in the U.K.’s Home Office, had been chosen to take over as its new chief executive later in the year, the first woman to fill the role.

“We welcome the change,” Glaister, the chair of the supporters group, said the week of the announcement, adding that dialogue between her group and the W.R.U. has improved over recent months.

And then, among this tangle of crises, comes a World Cup, which starts Friday and lasts through Oct. 28.

In another poor showing in the 2023 Six Nations, Wales finished fifth and won just one game. The team is now No. 10 in World Rugby rankings, behind Fiji, whom it faces in its group. The team is at its lowest ebb in 20 years.

But many fans have expressed their confidence that Gatland, who left the team after the 2019 World Cup and returned in December, can lead it once more to success.

Williams, the former player, pointed to another Welsh team that might serve as an inspiration for the current one. In 2003, when Williams was selected for his first World Cup, an attacking Wales team, with no expectations and coming off years of disappointment, played a carefree brand of rugby and reached the quarterfinals.

Today, many in the country still pinpoint that tournament as the springboard that launched the interest of a generation that followed.

“We want a positive outcome from this World Cup, and we want that to snowball into the start of the season,” Williams said. “We want a bit of positivity put back into rugby — so that my kids and our kids can look at rugby again and think: Yes, I do want to play rugby for Wales again.”

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