As we approach Christmas, it’s fair to say we have a lot going on in Welsh rugby at the moment.
Positive conversations are continuing with both Welsh Government and Sport Wales about vital funding for the game, as we now face the likelihood of no meaningful crowds for the Six Nations 2021. This is, of course, in line with what has been in announced in England, Ireland and Scotland already. Sport Wales have been tasked with determining the requirements of relevant sports and they fully recognise that Welsh rugby will form a fundamental part of the request.
The finish line may be in sight as the world looks to vaccination to eliminate the threat of the coronavirus once and for all, but there are large elements of the game in Wales that can do no more than limp towards it and there is now a realistic prospect that – without more funding – there will be material losses.
We do not expect crowds to return to sport in Wales in any meaningful numbers ahead of our home Six Nations matches at Principality Stadium in the New Year. That will not only impact the WRU but also our professional regional sides in terms of matchday income and our semi-pro and community game will also continue to be directly affected in this manner.
Significantly reduced income will lead to difficult choices being forced on us. No one wants to see investment reduced for projects designed to make rugby accessible and available to all.
We have shared this with Welsh Government, but of course Government have an overriding priority to ensure the safety of the nation first and foremost – they also have much going on and must, quite rightly in our view, put national health first. There is a genuine balance to be struck here, but I would like to reassure all elements of our professional and community game that we are continuing to make our case in an unrelenting and orderly manner as this terrible virus tightens its grip. We’ve had direct positive assurances from Welsh Government that they are “minded to support” and, for now, those assurances are good enough for us.
Elsewhere last week all of Welsh rugby was saddened to hear news, via various media outlets, from the former international Alix Popham, of the health problems he is experiencing in retirement. We have made contact with the WRPA as we would with any player welfare matter, and we are aware they are in direct contact with Alix. I would like to express my personal admiration for Alix and his family, for raising the issue and suggesting possible improvements to our game.
More generally speaking, I would also add that we take the wellbeing of all players, including our former players, very seriously. We will always listen to, as the game has always done, any potential improvements to our game for any reason. This is certainly not a time for rugby to go missing.
Looking forward there are a number of green shoots. We are continuing to work with the Sennedd and Sport Wales on plans for the return of rugby below the professional level. We have heard and share the concerns of our clubs about the risk of this break in the game seeing players and members leaving our sport. We will be announcing specific plans for the resumption of the community game shortly. We also have to show faith in our sport and the people that make up our clubs. Rugby gives so much to those who play, coach, referee and volunteer. I know I speak for the whole game in Wales when I say that we have missed it and we must take confidence that this hiatus will have reminded people just how much better life is with rugby in it.
We have finalised our new Community Rugby Strategy that will map out the future of our game and I look forward to sharing that in due course. We have also undertaken an Equality, Diversity and Inclusion project that will look at the WRU as a business but also the game as a whole. There is a place for everyone in Welsh rugby; everyone is welcome. No better example of that is the fact that we have not shied away from increasing our investment in female rugby.
A normal address to member clubs at this time of year would seek to highlight achievements so far and look to the New Year with excitement and anticipation. In any normal year the achievements of Nigel Owens would be the headline act. Nigel has brought down the curtain on a 17-year international career that has seen him referee 100 Test matches and he is one of the very finest role models and ambassadors for Welsh rugby. We are extremely proud of him and congratulate him on all that he has achieved in the game. We are of course equally proud of Alun Wyn Jones who took the record this year for international player appearances from New Zealand’s Richie McCaw. Alun has now played 143 times for Wales and made nine Test appearances for the British & Irish Lions. He already holds the record for most Six Nations appearances for his country (57) and has played in 21 matches across four Rugby World Cups. We must ensure that these achievements are celebrated despite the current pandemic.
With the 2023 RWC draw hot of the press this week and Australia and Fiji joining Wales, again, in Group C we can all be forgiven for daring to look past our current trials and tribulations. On the back of the new caps awarded in the Autumn Nations Cup, we expect to see more of the foundations stones of this plan laid at the 2021 Six Nations in the New Year and look forward to the opportunity to dream of simpler, more unrestricted and unrestrained times both on and off the pitch.
Finally, I will be encouraging our staff to take a meaningful break over Christmas to spend time, safely, with family and friends. It’s been a demanding nine months for all staff who have all stepped up to the plate during these challenging times. The challenges we face will still be there in January and we will be better placed to manage those challenges with our staff having taken some time out of the business and suitably refreshed on their return
I would also like to wish everyone in our wonderful game well over the holidays. I have been reminded constantly through this challenging year just how important rugby is to the communities of Wales. Rugby people have stepped up. They have continued to put in the time and effort needed to keep their clubs afloat and at the same time given back to the people around them. Thank you. Let’s look forward to 2021.
Yours in rugby, WRU CEO Steve Phillips