Let’s start with a nice simple quiz. Which one of these three organisations is the odd one out?
Welsh Rugby Union
They all develop grass roots sport; they also develop sport at the highest level and they all receive public funding to varying degrees. The answer is of course the WRU. Why? Because the other two bodies are regionalised and the WRU is not. Just because it has Districts, which are primarily there to elect representatives to the Board but have no power, doesn’t make it a regionalised body.
But that can’t be right surely because we hear a lot about the ‘Regions’. The planned takeover of Newport Gwent Dragons on 1 July will result in a Dragons region to match the Scarlets and Ospreys. Additionally, the apparent desire of Peter Thomas to hand over the operational management of Cardiff Blues to the WRU is a further step down the same road, surely?
This, of course, is nonsense because that’s not what regionalisation is about. People use these terms without understanding what they mean or what implications they have.
The decision to move to the so called ‘Dragons’ regional brand without any consultation or any research evidence of its implications and benefits was quite bizarre.
When Martyn Phillips was appointed as Chief Executive he made clear that he didn’t believe in centralisation. We’ll take him at his word. There wasn’t a person involved in Welsh rugby who didn’t breathe a sigh of relief on hearing that. Unfortunately, there has been no significant change in a body which is the most centralised in Wales. To be fair to the CEO we suspect it’s not through any want of trying but the powers that be on the Board continue to resist any form of change let alone decentralisation and regionalisation.
In its recently published ‘Our Strategy for Welsh Rugby’, the WRU wrote on page 3 in the section on Culture, Leadership and Governance:
‘We will be open, transparent and involving in how we lead the game’ and ‘We have a responsibility to be agile and inclusive. We will implement the right governance systems and structures with suitably qualified individuals who are reflective of modern society’.
If the WRU really wants the four professional teams to become regions it needs to do two things:
Take the lead by decentralising itself first and establish a regional structure with a national skills-based Board;
Define through a clearly articulated strategy what decentralisation looks like and how this will benefit the development of the game in Wales.
Both of these tasks are obvious but the inertia surrounding change is both an embarrassment, given the quotes in the strategy, and a constraint on the administration and development of the game. It is also hypocrisy of the highest order to ask others to change while not being prepared to do so yourself.
These points, of course are not new. They have been made by a number of people over the years with little or no impact. Governing bodies of sport across the United Kingdom are changing rapidly. Boards are moving from the old fashioned representative system to skills-based boards where members have a mix of skills appropriate to the running of a company. Such an approach has been embraced by sports bodies. The Sport and Recreation Alliance (SRA) and the Welsh Sports Association (WSA), the umbrella organisations for the governing bodies of sport, have both led on advocating skills-based boards. Welsh Hockey and Tennis Wales were some of the first bodies to do this. And the WRU? It is still in the dark ages. Its district representatives resisting any change which could result in the gravy train leaving without them. If they truly had Welsh rugby at heart rather than their own self-interest they really would embrace regionalisation.
As John Steinbeck the author of the Grapes of Wrath said:
‘Power does not corrupt. Fear corrupts….perhaps the fear of loss of power’.
The purpose of the Union is to govern the sport, not to run every facet of rugby in Wales (you’ll never guess who said that!). If Martyn Phillips and the Board were committed to decentralisation what would this entail? Well, it’s not just about splitting the country into smaller jurisdictions (administrative divisions or subnational units) and giving them names, it’s also about transferring power from the national governing body to the regions. It’s based on a very simple belief that the best decisions are made closest to the people they affect. So local decisions should be made by local clubs; regional decisions should be made at regional level and national decisions at national level. Political scientists call it the principle of subsidiarity. A fancy term for something that’s simple and bleedin’ obvious.
‘Many people believe that decentralisation means loss of control. That's simply not true. You can improve control if you look at control as the control of events and not people. Then, the more people you have controlling events - the more people you have that care about controlling the events, the more people you have proactively working to create favourable events - the more control you have within the organisation, by definition.’ General Wilbur L Creech, US Air Force
Back in March 2014, David Moffett advocated this type of structure with 5 regions across Wales; the four current pro regions plus the semi-pro North Wales region. This needs to be resurrected and not dismissed because of any personal antagonism which some still have towards Moffo. It’s right and sensible. It also means the WRU should:
Devolve development staff to the regions - to establish a pathway and work with schools and clubs, run coach education courses etc.
Devolve administrative staff to the regions - to distribute grants, arrange fixtures, provide advice guidance on club development and child protection etc.
Ensure the new regional structure operates out of the existing stadia so that young people aspire to go there, either to play, train or learn. Emotion is a big part of belonging.
Even when the new Dragons Region comes into being and ‘represents’ the 73 clubs of Gwent it still won’t be regionalisation and the clubs still won’t buy-in unless the above changes take place. The clubs still won’t have control over their own destiny and the Dragons won’t have responsibility for supporting clubs, albeit they will still have responsibility for the pathway. Unlike New Zealand, not one penny will be invested by any club in the Dragons Region and they will have no say in its running. You cannot have ‘hubs and spokes’ in a centralised sport system.
Once you have the right regionalised structure there is a lot that can be done to improve matters as Geraint Powell (The Viet Gwent) advocated recently: joint ticketing; fixture list coordination; Friday evening preference for pro-teams etc. Match that with the devolved staffing mentioned above and you begin to get a powerful model.
To their credit, the one thing that the four pro teams have embraced is the regional pathway. The crop of youngsters coming through the Cardiff Blues pathway from the Valleys is hugely encouraging both for club and country. However, more credit could be given to the local clubs from where players originated before joining the professional team. Just as Bill McLaren used to say when commentating about Gareth Davies: They’ll be singing in the street of Tumble tonight. This would reduce the perception that the pro team is taking all the credit for a player’s development.
Some have argued that for consistency, the pro team should be seen to represent the whole region so as to influence spectator behaviour. This is a nice theory but has no basis in reality. Players move across regions; teams include non-Welsh qualified players; sponsors want association with a brand not an arbitrary geographical entity; people will go to watch a game where they want not based on ‘their’ region. This doesn’t mean that pro teams should not seek to promote themselves in their region, of course they should, but spectator behaviour is something they can only hope to influence, not directly control.
Some have argued that behaviour can be influenced by the name of the team and their shirt colours. This is true. When you are establishing a new team with no history or existing affinity these two issues are important. However when you are changing an existing team which has a long history such matters are fraught with danger. Remember Hull City and Cardiff City just down the road? If you are going to do that you’d better make sure that those folks you hadn’t previously attracted but now hope to do so are greater in number than the ones you are about to lose. You also need to make sure that the sponsors you currently have want to associate themselves with the new brand when you ditch the old one.
In Cardiff’s case both of those last point are becoming fairly clear even at this early stage. Longstanding season ticket holders are threatening to withdraw their support and at least one sponsors has already said that the links with ‘Cardiff’ are essential for them as a company.
So, the concept of regionalisation has a long way to go but it is something the WRU needs to grasp sooner than rather than later. It’s crucial to the future development of Welsh rugby. It should concentrate on those things which are within its control and which will make a difference, not make arbitrary decisions about names and shirt colours. To quote the opening line of its strategy:
‘This is not a sport it’s what we live for. It’s not just 80 minutes. Oh no. This is a lifetime.’
Thought provoking article . Decentralisation as described here makes sense as does skills based boards. Playing devils advocate here , retaining the traditions of Cardiff rugby does not sit easily alongside a regional set up as described. Seems a forced and false set up. I would like it but I doubt supporters of the other clubs in the region would buy into it. Diplomacy, tight rope walking and "bribery"would be attributes required to satisfy both Cardiff and non Cardiff supporters!
Sorry if this seems negative.