WRU: Boss Nigel Walker reflects on months of turmoil in Welsh rugby

Welsh rugby is distressingly familiar with chaos.

But the waters have never been choppier than they have been over the last three months.

The Welsh Rugby Union is subject to an ongoing investigation into its culture following allegations of sexism and bullying by former employees.

And during the recent Six Nations, players threatened to go on strike ahead of the match against England over ongoing contractual disputes.

On the field there is little to celebrate. The regions continue to struggle and Wales limped to fifth in the Six Nations.

The Union’s governance structure is also up in the air with a crucial extraordinary general meeting taking place on Sunday.

A sea of turmoil is raging at its doors and the Welsh Rugby Union is struggling to hold back the tide.

There was some reprieve when an eleventh hour agreement was reached with the players and the Wales v England match took place.

But there is now significant concern over the paucity of the contracts now being offered to players. Such is the financial trouble in Welsh rugby, the regions will be receiving roughly £10 million less per year from the WRU moving forward.

Some players have been offered just 20% of the salary that they are currently on and many are leaving to ply their trade elsewhere.

“Budgets across the whole of the Welsh game are constantly under review,” WRU CEO Nigel Walker told ITV Wales when asked what his organisation is doing to control its own spend.

“And players may say that they have been put under undue pressure and the burden is on them more than anybody else.

Premiership clubs in England are set to see their salary cap increase to £6.5 million Credit: PA

“But as Malcolm Wall, Chair of the Professional Rugby Board said, the salaries currently being paid to professional players are unsustainable.

“So we need to get in a position where the salaries that we're offering are actually the ones that the market can bear and that's why we're seeing this correction now.

“We've seen that correction in England most recently, and because England didn't make the correction soon enough, a couple of their clubs actually went bust. We don't want that position in Wales.

When asked if salaries at Board and Executive level were being subject to similar scrutiny, Walker added: “Well, we have one key problem here. The salaries paid to our professional players are higher than the market can bear. That's why the players are feeling the brunt of it now.

“I understand, I was a player once a long time ago. It doesn't matter what profession you are in, if you are told you're going to take a wage cut, it just needs to be justified and the reasons explained why. We've explained the reasons why.”

Around the same time that regions will see their budgets reduced to roughly £4.5 million, Premiership clubs in England are set to see their salary cap increase to £6.5 million.

Spend among Irish provinces will also dwarf that in Wales Credit: PA

On top of that cap, English clubs will also receive credits for a marquee player and the development of homegrown talent.

Spend among Irish provinces will also dwarf that in Wales.

“We know that the Gallagher Premiership has felt the pain over the last year or two as their budgets came down,” said Walker.

“There is a process in place which means that those budgets are due to go up, but they're actually meeting to discuss whether they will actually go up and whether they can afford for them to go up. So it's not a given that they will go up.

“Clearly, if we're going one way and the Gallagher Premiership is going the other way, that means it's going to be a difficult time to be competitive.

“But we don't think it's going to last. We're fairly confident it won't last forever. There's going to be a year or two where it's quite uncomfortable and we've been very open about that.

“But what we want to do is to have a sustainable professional game in Wales," says Walker. Credit: PA

“But what we want to do is to have a sustainable professional game in Wales.”

With the WRU and regions still thrashing out the finer details of a new six-year financial agreement, Walker expressed his hope that budgets would be able to go back up in years to come.

But with the WRU’s turnover returning to pre-pandemic levels, there is some confusion over why there is less available to the regions.

When asked where the £10 million shortfall is being spent, Walker said: “The six-year framework is a complex deal. You've got regional investors, you've got debt, you've got the WRU normal revenues going in - I think it's £108 million over the six years - and then you've got project monies being invested.

“The Union now has more teams than it's ever had.

“We're operating within our means and we're giving as much money as we can to the professional game. People will ask ‘is that number great enough?’ Well, we'll have to wait and see.”

Also stuffed into Walker’s overflowing in-tray is Sunday’s EGM.

In recent weeks, he and Chair Ieuan Evans have been on the road, selling proposals for a new Board structure to the member clubs.

Walker and Evans need 75% of the vote share on Sunday for their motion to pass Credit: PA

The headline acts in the new plans include elected club officials being reduced from eight to four and the number of independent appointments rising to six.

They also want the ability to appoint an independent chair and for at least five of the new Board members to be women.

A number of community clubs have come out in support of the proposals, which have been backed unanimously by the existing Board, this week.

But Walker and Evans need 75% of the vote share on Sunday for their motion to pass.

And far less radical proposals have been blocked by the clubs in the past.

“It's not about power,” insisted Walker. “It's about us being representative of the society that we live in. But just like a FTSE 100 company, its shareholders can call an extraordinary general meeting if they don't like the direction of travel that the board has put in place.

“Our clubs - we're a union of clubs - can still call an extraordinary general meeting if they're not satisfied with the direction of travel of the Welsh Rugby Union.

Wales' 2023 Six Nations campaign ended in defeat as they went down 41-28 to France in Paris, finishing 5th overall. Credit: PA

“Everybody wants their board to be truly representative of the society that they operate in. Currently our board isn't.

“We want the skill set of that board to be able to take that organisation forward professionally. Our own board has said that we need a different skill set and we need a different approach.

“Yes, things that have happened recently have hastened the speed at which we're going to introduce these changes.

“But the direction of travel was set from a very long time ago.”

Walker insisted he was confident ‘not complacent’ over how Sunday’s vote would go and has been canvassing clubs all over the country to gauge the temperature.

But if the Union’s governance is now subject to reform, it’s believed some of its major sponsors will withdraw their support.

Such a scenario could well leave the game in financial ruin.

“Well, if there were a no vote, we'd be in quite a bit of trouble,” admitted Walker.

“Our stakeholders, the people who we have been speaking to, whether they be sponsors, whether they be the Welsh Government, whether they be the other clubs - they feel these changes need to be made.

“So if we don't get the right vote, well, I'm not sure where we go from here.”

Whatever happens on Sunday, the impact of that decision will be felt for years to come.