Welsh Rugby Union ‘truly sorry’ after damning independent review

Steve Phillips
Steve Phillips resigned as WRU chief executive in January 2023 after allegations of sexism and misogyny were made against the governing body

An independent review has found aspects of the Welsh Rugby Union (WRU) culture were sexist, misogynistic, racist and homophobic and not properly challenged.

The WRU environment also had elements of bullying and discrimination, and was described as toxic by some employees.

The governance was found to have not been been fit for purpose.

The WRU board was also described as dysfunctional, ill-equipped and unable to address the serious institutional and culture problems it faced.

Warning – this article contains distressing content

The damning report found concerns from the majority interviewed that the WRU can be an unforgiving place, even vindictive, with an unusual amount of people concerned about their identity being revealed.

The report also highlighted the WRU’s reliance on non-disclosure agreements (NDA) to silence employees.

It was commissioned by the WRU in January 2023 after a BBC Wales investigation raised serious allegations within the organisation.

The report makes 36 recommendations which included appointing an external oversight group to monitor the organisation, continued board reform by dropping members from 12 to 10 with a fit and proper test for individuals, and higher investment in the women’s and girls’ game.

The WRU says it will accept all of the recommendations, with new chair Richard Collier-Keywood apologising for the conduct of the organisation and stating the report was a “difficult read”.

What sparked the investigation?

The BBC Wales Investigates programme aired in January 2023 and uncovered allegations of sexism and misogyny at the WRU.

Welsh women’s rugby former manager Charlotte Wathan told the programme a male colleague said in front of others in an office that he wanted to “rape” her.

Wathan and another former female colleague said they considered suicide due to what they described as a “toxic culture” of sexism at the WRU.

Other accusations of bullying and racism were also made against the WRU. The independent report found inappropriate sexist and homophobic language used towards female employees, which included the term “sugar tits” and a sexist attitude from the men’s performance staff towards the Wales women’s team who were described as a “sore on the arse.”

The BBC programme also questioned why a critical report into the women’s performance game in 2021 had not been published, with the WRU saying it did not have the permission of the authors or participants to publish the review.

A week after the programme was shown, former WRU chief executive Steve Phillips resigned with a pay-off of £480,000, with Nigel Walker taking over the interim position.

Amanda Blanc ‘deeply saddened’

Amanda Blanc appears on Desert Island Discs
Amanda Blanc joined Aviva in July 2020, becoming the company’s first female chief executive

Former Professional Rugby Board (PRB) chair Amanda Blanc has previously spoken about the misogyny she endured at the WRU and her resignation letter and speech was included in the report.

In November 2021, Blanc stood down from the WRU board and PRB role she had held for less than two years. The Aviva Group CEO says she was not listened to at the WRU.

In her letter, Ms Blanc said she was deeply saddened at the approach taken towards the women’s game review and conversations regarding women she had experienced.

Three weeks later Blanc pulled no punches in her leaving speech where she described the women’s review as “beyond disappointing and verging on insulting towards women”.

She also revealed she had been questioned by the board whether she had sufficient business experience to be the chairwoman of the WRU’s professional board.

Blanc was in charge of a FTSE 100 company and on the 2021 Forbes most influential women in the world list.

She also recounted an example where the board were discussing reducing the sanctions for a WRU district council member who had made a misogynist comment along the lines of “women should know their place in the kitchen and stick to the ironing, men are the master race”.

Blanc said that listening to members of the board saying it would be unfair to take away too many Six Nations tickets was insulting.

Taskforce remit

The independent investigation was launched in January 2023 with the panel led by former High Court judge Dame Anne Rafferty.

It included former England international and World Cup winner Maggie Alphonsi and mediator Quentin Smith, who was a former chair of Sale Sharks and current chair of the Football Association’s Exceptions Panel.

The taskforce was asked to consider behaviour at all levels of the sporting organisation.

These included how comfortable staff feel raising concerns or challenging inappropriate and discriminatory language and behaviour, the effectiveness of the WRU’s whistleblowing policies, and procedures and action taken by the WRU in response to the concerns raised in the BBC investigation.

The report took seven months and more than 50 witnesses or groups of witnesses were interviewed, including current and former staff, players and directors.

The report was split into four main areas surrounding governance, management of rugby for women and girls, equality, diversity and inclusion, and the WRU’s relationship with external stakeholders.

The governance was found to have not been been fit for purpose before change in March 2023 and the WRU board was described as dysfunctional, ill-equipped and unable to address the serious institutional and culture problems it faced.

What actions have WRU already taken?

Major changes have already been implemented. Walker will move to an executive director of rugby position in January 2024, with Abi Tierney becoming the first female WRU chief executive.

An extraordinary general meeting (EGM) was called in March 2023, with the clubs voting for major governance change to the WRU board to provide greater diversity and expertise within the organisation.

The WRU was aiming to redress the gender imbalance, with an ambition that at least five of the 12 board members are women, including one of the top two jobs – the chief executive or chair.

The clubs voted for an appointed independent chair rather than somebody elected by the clubs. This resulted in former Wales captain Ieuan Evans stepping aside after only officially being appointed in October 2022, with Richard Collier-Keywood then appointed in June 2023.

The number of independent members was doubled from three to six, while elected national or district members was halved from eight to four.

The new-look Welsh leadership team of chief executive Abi Tierney (centre), executive director of rugby Nigel Walker (left) and chair Richard Collier-Keywood (right) at the Principality Stadium
The new-look 2024 WRU leadership team of chief executive Abi Tierney (centre), executive director of rugby Nigel Walker (left) and chair Richard Collier-Keywood (right)

What the WRU says

Chair Richard Collier-Keywood: “We are truly sorry to those who have been impacted by the systems, structures and conduct described in the report which are simply not acceptable.

“We have to do better and we will. This report covers our governance, our culture, our approach to women’s and girls’ rugby and behaviours of leadership. For anyone who cares about rugby in Wales it is a very difficult read and it is a particularly difficult read if you work at the WRU.

“It is clear there were many opportunities to avert the serious problems described which were simply not taken.

“We have a lot of work to do to win back the trust of our colleagues, our players, the volunteers who are the heart of our community game, and the supporters that buy tickets week in week out.

“This report is helpful in providing a path for some of what we need to do to earn back that trust.

“We have already committed to listen, learn and change. Nigel Walker, Ieuan Evans, Abi Tierney, I and the whole board have all committed to accept the findings on behalf of the WRU. We have also committed to implementing the recommendations and we intend to do that at pace.”

“Significant change is never easy. We are committed to operating transparently and building trust across and beyond the game of rugby in Wales. We look forward to developing a new strategy re-establishing our values across the WRU.

“It has been a very difficult time for our players and many of our colleagues who work at the WRU and I want to say thank you to all of them. Despite these troubled times, they have continued to deliver an elite, professional and community rugby programme for men and women, girls and boys that is such an important part of Welsh society.”

Incoming chief executive Abi Tierney: “The review’s report is incredibly humbling and describes issues, actions and attitudes that are hugely regrettable. They should not exist in our, nor any, workplace.

“Of course, as leaders of the organisation, we will all wholeheartedly condemn the attitudes and issues described, but we are equally aware that our response needs to be greater than this.

“We will implement all of the recommendations the independent review panel has made. My colleagues have committed to doing this and I commit to doing this too.

“But we will also go deeper than this. We will take what the review has found to heart and not only fix the issues identified but also to build a culture and values that we can all be proud of. We will do this together.”

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