Mark Rhydderch-Roberts warning on elite league and folly of seeking to shrink to greatness
PONTYPRIDD RFC BOARD MEMBER MARK RHYDDERCH-ROBERTS WARNING ON ELITE LEAGUE AND FOLLY OF SEEKING TO SHRINK TO GREATNESS
Credit – Article is from Media Wales Business Editor Sion Barry via Wales Online
Plans from the WRU to create a new elite league below regional rugby for eight teams are “delusional” and would have damaging financial implications. And executive board member of Pontypridd RFC, Mark Rhydderch-Roberts, says unless a radical overhaul of the game at all levels is enacted Wales faces becoming a permanent second tier playing nation.
The former senior investment banking executive says that Welsh rugby cannot “shrink to greatness” while ignoring the clubs, their members, stakeholders and basic commercial realities. He also claims that the WRU has been labouring under a “catastrophically damaging misapprehension” that the professional game can exist in a “bubble almost completely disconnected operationally and culturally” from the semi-professional and community game, as well as schools and universities.
The union has set out initial plans – although far from being confirmed – for a new league for eight teams from the 2024-25 season. If taken forward it would be made up of four clubs drawn within the pathways of the four regions, a guaranteed place for Rygbi Gogledd Cymru (RGC), with the remaining three places from other clubs in the existing semi-professional Premiership. The league is currently made up of 12 teams, but is being increased to 14 from next season. Last year the Premiership clubs unanimously rejected plans from the WRU to reduce the number to nine.
Speaking with the full backing of the board of the Sardis Road Premiership club Mr Rhydderch-Roberts, whose career in investment banking saw him holding executive roles with the likes of Swiss Re, USB Warburg, Schroders and Societe Generale said: “Financially, the WRU have publicly stated that they are currently unable to sustain four regions. They have also indicated that they cannot sustain the semi pro Welsh Premiership and have effectively withdrawn financial support and any semblance of leadership and structure. So, it is genuinely delusional to propose a new league at a time when the regional game appears to be in disarray at virtually every level and the games’ finances in unsustainable disarray.
“The endless tinkering by the WRU over many years and the uncertainty that causes with the Welsh Premiership is destroying the spectator base, minimising sponsor interest, and weakening the roots of rugby in its core heartlands. It would be also difficult to see why any club benefactor or sponsor in the Welsh Premiership would wish to continue to provide financial support given the likely impact of these proposals.
“It’s also difficult to see why spectators would want to watch it (proposed league) if they don’t want to watch the regions and the prospects of a TV deal would be remote. There is no empirical evidence at all that the regions are capable of running their own businesses successfully since inception so it is extremely unlikely that any input they might have into an A team dominated new elite league would be successful.”
Mr Rhydderch-Roberts, who is also a board member of Glamorgan Cricket and played for Pontypridd and Bath, said any new proposals for an new elite league brought forward by the governing body would be consulted upon with members of the Sardis Road club.
However he added: “I think I can say that it is highly unlikely that Pontypridd RFC would ever vote to sanction the creation of the proposed elite league or participate in such a league. This would be to protect our commercial solvency and independence. It is also worth noting that the Welsh Premiership unanimously voted down just under a year ago a similar WRU proposal to reduce the league to nine clubs from the existing 12.
“Any proposed league that sat between fully pro and semi pro would, we strongly believe, be the death knell for the traditional heritage clubs that, unlike the Welsh regions, are deeply embedded in their communities and maintain the key connection with participants, spectators and members.
“We firmly believe that 14 is the optimum number of teams a league can sustain commercially, which would provide sufficient home games in terms of spectator interest and the commercial reinforcement of traditional tribal and team loyalties. We have no intention of jeopardising 150 years of proud independence and history. As directors we have a fiduciary duty to ensure that our club remains solvent and financially viable. We believe that this latest WRU proposal would swiftly ensure oblivion for the game we know and love in Wales.
“The WRU have consistently propagated a default strategy of managed decline allied to minimal investment and believe that somehow, despite all evidence to the contrary, Welsh rugby can shrink to greatness while ignoring the clubs, their members, stakeholders and basic commercial realities. This default strategy, in the complete absence of leadership, vision and any other coherent plans from the WRU board to develop the game, has led us to the desperate situation that Welsh rugby currently finds itself in. The proposal to create a new elite league above the Welsh Premiership is the strategy of a rudderless and institutionally incompetent organisation.”
He added: “This is not a new phenomenon and has been evident for over 20 years, compounded by a refusal to ever admit hugely damaging structural mistakes have been made. These remain unacknowledged to date and are unlikely to be addressed anytime soon, whatever the outcome of the vote of the EGM this Sunday (single motion to overhaul the governance restructure of the union’s board).
Crickhowell-born Mr Rhydderch-Roberts wouldn’t comment on how Pontypridd intends to vote at the union’s EGM this Sunday, which if approved would see its board being streamlined to 12 with an independent non executive director (INED) as chairman, and the doubling of INEDs to four, with at least two being women. The motion needs a 75% approval level from the union’s affiliated clubs.
However, Mr Rhydderch-Roberts said that radical change is needed at all levels of the game. He added: “It is clear that for the last 20 years or so the WRU have been labouring under the catastrophically damaging misapprehension that somehow, the professional game can exist in a bubble almost completely disconnected operationally and culturally from the semi pro game, the community game, and schools and universities.
“Recent WRU figures on male adult participation are sobering in the extreme. The WRU have indicated verbally that their best estimate of adult male participants at all levels in Wales who play week in, week out for a recognised team/club is 6,750 individuals. I think in England a similar figure would be around 200,000 regular adult male players.
“This underlines one clear and salient truth, the game in Wales is at a tipping point. This is not the usual cyclical crisis we have seen many times over the years; it is certainly not just financial, although finances are critical; this crisis is structural and could be terminal. Wales is at high risk of becoming a second tier rugby nation permanently, with our best young players leaving, in a European version of the South Sea Islands experience with their richer neighbours.
“We also risk losing Welsh rugby’s social and cultural position in our nation. While we fully support the ongoing development of women’s rugby, it is the core men’s game which funds the WRU. If that is destroyed or severely compromised, no money will be available to develop anything. At the moment, the core men’s game is existentially threatened.
“Pontypridd will continue to fight, along with our like minded colleagues in the Welsh Premiership, for a vision of Welsh rugby that harnesses the latent power of our clubs and people, respects our history and communities, provides a product that is financially viable and engaging to our stakeholders.”