Welsh sporting great Nigel Walker on values, racism and taking on one of his biggest challenges yet

Nigel Walker spoke to Face to Face host Adrian Masters on a range of topics including life in 1970s Cardiff, his sporting career and his newest challenge at the Welsh Rugby Union.

As a sportsman he was always one of the one of the hardest working, known for putting in the hours on the track and the rugby field. 

Now Nigel Walker has another tough assignment in front of him, this time as an administrator.

The 58-year-old - who represented Great Britain at athletics before a successful conversion to rugby - was appointed Director of Performance at the Welsh Rugby Union last year.

The issues in his in-tray include the state of the men's game and the structures underpinning it.

Whilst recent allegations of sexism and misogyny by a former WRU employee, now the subject of a tribunal, have raised questions about the culture at the organisation.

Nigel Walker made a successful transition from athletics to rugby Credit: PA Images

"The WRU has been on a journey for quite some time and will continue to address any issues that are there", Walker told Adrian Masters on ITV Wales' Face to Face programme, which is broadcast tonight (April 5).

"But in my 20 years as a senior leader in organisations, anybody who's worked with me will tell you that I work incredibly hard to treat people as I'd want to be treated myself.

"In the six months that I've been in the Welsh Rugby Union I have seen no cases of that, and if there were I would call it out.

"Because I would be embarrassed to work for an organisation that didn't live up to those sorts of values."

Values are important to the man who was born in 1963 to parents of Jamaican immigrants. 

As a boy growing up in Cardiff, he excelled at sport, playing rugby and representing Cardiff Schools at football.

But it was in athletics that he really stood out, representing Great Britain in the 110 metres hurdles before making the team for the 1984 Olympic Games in Los Angeles, reaching the semi-finals.

Eight years later a chance conversation with former Wales star Mark Ring, a former team mate of Walker, led him to make the switch from athletics to rugby.

Just a few months later, he was running out at Cardiff Arms Park for Wales v Ireland in the Five Nations Championship.

It was the first of 17 caps, which saw Walker - considered to be one of the fastest men to play rugby union - score 12 tries.

Careers in broadcasting and management followed, before the former winger was unveiled as the WRU’s new Director of Performance.

He’d previously been vocal in his criticisms of the way the game was being run, condemning the "teacher-pupil relationship" between the union and the four professional regions, which, he warned, were “on the verge of collapse” due to underfunding.

Now the man charged with improving that relationship, he believes there are better times ahead. 

"If I didn't think that we could work together - the unions and the regions - to make sure that the Welsh national team continues to be successful [I wouldn’t have taken the job].”

"There's been unprecedented success over the last 15 years or so. But we have to find a way the regions can also be successful, and that's going to take some changes."

"There are a number of levers which can be pulled. We've got to make sure we pull the right levers so that we get the right outcomes”

Walker has already overseen an improvement in the women’s game, with the awarding of 12 professional contracts heralding an upturn in results, with Six Nations wins over Ireland and Scotland.

But challenges remain. The woes of the domestic game are now being felt at international level, with Wales' men finishing fifth in this year’s Six Nations and losing at home to Italy for the first time. 

Nigel Walker in action against the All Blacks at Wembley in 1997 Credit: PA Images

Solving the problems will take tough decisions and determination, something Walker says he developed as a black teenager growing up in Cardiff in the 1970s.  

One of just “12 to 15 black children out of 1400” at the city’s Rumney High School, he said he experienced a number of racist incidents. 

“One incident in particular sticks out in my mind”, he said.

"I was walking through a narrow archway where you had B Block and C Block."

"And on the gym wall was a racist slur about six foot letters high. And it was there for two or three days before it was painted out. And even when it was painted out, you could still read what was underneath. 

"And it wasn't mentioned. It was as if it didn't happen. And for a 13-14 year old child to see that every day was really uncomfortable.”

"It was around that age that I vowed I would work as hard as I could to be the best person I could. To take away any danger of me not achieving what I might ordinarily have achieved. To take it out of the equation. It spurred me on.”

It’s spurred the amiable Walker onto great things - on and off the pitch. 

Now he faces perhaps his biggest professional challenge yet.

Face to Face, with Adrian Masters, is on ITV Cymru Wales tonight at 11:00pm and will be available online via the ITV Wales website.