The new chairman of the Welsh Rugby Union, Richard Collier-Keywood, said creating a culture that everyone at the governing body is proud of was his number one priority with a focus too on a more collaborative relationship with the regions from coaching to driving new commercial revenues.
In his first interview since formally taking up the role as the WRU’s first ever independent non-executive chair, who has been appointed rather than elected, he said despite current funding challenges he was comfortable with the agreed position of maintaining four professional regions in Wales.
And despite calls from some quarters to establish a British Isles league, he said the union remains committed to making a success of the United Rugby Championship (URC) in which the four Welsh regions compete alongside sides from Ireland, Scotland, Italy and South Africa.
The Nottingham-born 61-year-old, whose fiercely patriotic Welsh mum ensured that supporting Welsh rugby was non-negotiable, was appointed as part of an overhaul of the union’s governance after clubs voted 97% in favour of increasing the number of independent non-executives – including the chair – as well as the number of women board members. The single motion approved by the union’s membership clubs at an extraordinary general meeting back in March was a response to a BBC Wales investigation which alleged a toxic culture in the union of sexism, misogyny and homophobia.
Collier-Keywood, the former UK managing partner of professional advisory firm PwC and its global vice-chair, described the BBC programme as difficult to watch.
Mr Collier-Keywood said: “Obviously you looked at it and thought ‘oh my goodness, that is awful’. You also looked at the potential player strike that was playing out in the media and you felt obviously not all was well behind the front of what you normally see in terms of Welsh rugby. I was very conscious of that, but I didn’t actually think at that moment in time that I wanted to go into the WRU and serve as chair. It was only subsequent to that [having been approached by headhunters Odgers Berndtson that it became an opportunistic thing.”
The new chair said that interim chief executive Nigel Walker, who will take up a new executive role when the new chief executive is in post, and his predecessor as chair Ieuan Evans responded correctly to the allegations raised in the programme.
He added: “I haven’t read everything that Ieuan and Nigel said at the time, but I think my general impression is that they did the right thing as they treated it very seriously, as they should have done. And I think at that point in time you have to as an organisation be reflective. So, I totally understand and would endorse the fact that they took responsibility for it and actually took responsibility to change it.”
While he will work on a new wide-ranging strategy with the incoming chief executive and new-look board – with driving commercial revenues to sustain four regions a critical element – he said a positive culture was pivotal. He added: “You want a culture that people can be proud of and one of the things that has most impressed me about the rugby culture as I have observed it over many years is the standard of professionalism and the respect that players show to each other and for the referee, for example, on the pitch.
“There is a different ethos around the sport of rugby itself which I think builds much more on the respect of individuals. Nobody is suggesting it is perfect, but it is a really good role model for young people growing up in our society and how they think about things.
“And I say that because I think the culture of the WRU needs to be reflective and needs to lead that cultural viewpoint of life. So, for me, culture stands out as the number one and that goes from the board to the executive team and to everybody that works within the organisation. It also goes out to everybody the organisation deals with.
“My PA Moira has been with me for over 20 years and one of the things you get from someone who has worked with you for such a long period of time is that there are some people who treat me with a huge amount of respect and treat Moira with very limited respect and that is not a good way to behave. So, it has to be the whole of you and the whole of the organisation and you have to promote that culture in every facet of what you do.”
On his initial early impressions of the culture of the WRU, he said: “For the most part, it is pretty positive. There has been a huge amount of work done since the programme was first aired to create some of the changes. I am part of that change process with the 97% positive vote for governance change a key part of reforming the culture and bringing in a broader group of people to help govern and make the game in Wales more successful. The vast majority of people who I have met in my limited couple of days [at the WRU] are lovely and respectful and good at their jobs, etc. So, this isn’t like the organisation is broken, and there are a lot of good things here that we can build on, but equally there is a need for the leadership to very clearly set out what is our position on culture and how we would like people to be treated.”
Following the BBC investigation, the union established an independent panel to review its culture and behaviours. Chaired by former Court of Appeal judge Dame Anne Rafferty, it is expected to publish its findings at the end of the summer.
Mr Collier-Keywood said: “We have already made the commitment to implementing the changes they suggest and I stand by that commitment. I think you have to put your trust in a process that we have committed to. I am really looking forward to hearing their perspective which, in a sense, that is very valuable as the incoming chair to get their independent perspective on the organisation. It will not be very difficult to respect what they suggest.”
The identity of the new CEO is expected to be confirmed within the next few weeks. On his relationship with the new CEO, he said: “You are there as a critical friend and that is really important and speaks to the fact that you need an open relationship with your chief executive and nothing is hidden on either side because otherwise that person won’t think they can come and chat to you about things. The CEO can be quite a lonely role, so having that critical friend that you go and talk to and bounce things off is a really important part of that role.”
The new CEO will have scope to reshape the executive team. He added: “My style as chair is that I want to give the new chief executive as much freedom as possible because you have selected them because they are very good at running organisations, being commercial and managing complex stakeholder environments of which the WRU is a good example. So you want to give them enough freedom so they can stamp their own mark, whilst helping them to do that in ways that don’t create waves of unnecessary disruption.”
For the game to be sustainable in Wales, he said it needs to become accessible to everyone. He added: “We exist to make the whole game in Wales successful and I am very conscious that in many communities the rugby club is the only thing that is open and community-based now.
“The sustainability of that is really important and that requires rugby becoming more accessible to everybody, be that women, younger or older people. So, there is definitely something to do around that participation, but also reaching out to communities and recognising that in Wales we are more than just a rugby club in most communities. There are some very good things we do on the community side in terms of young people and creating things around that ethos. I would love to think that we can build on that and work in more difficult places and bring a bit more light and positivity.
“Welsh rugby needs to be successful and how do you do that? Well, it needs to be looking at a broader basis than just the men’s elite team, we need to look at the women’s team and the pathways.
“Our purpose is to effectively make enough money to feed that and to create an improved environment so that we are competing against other teams in other parts of the British Isles and France. We need to generate more money to be more competitive, as whilst money isn’t the only answer, it is part of the answer.”
The Scarlets v Ospreys in the URC. (Image: Huw Evans Agency) While speculation continues around potential mergers which could reduce the number of regions from four to three, a deal to take the Dragons out of union control into private ownership is at a heads of terms stage and is expected to go unconditional over the next few weeks.
The deal will see Dragons chairman David Buttress and a yet to be named number of other investors in a consortium acquiring the Rodney Parade-based region.
The deal needs to be first ratified by the other regions. While the terms have not been disclosed, the value of the transaction is expected to be nominal fee with the consortium taking on the £4million debt owed to the Welsh Government following the union’s refinancing of £18m of Covid loans for the region with NatWest Bank with the Cardiff Bay administration. The refinanced debt is now repayable over the long-term. The value of land at Rodney Parade identified for commercial development – the so-called cabbage patch – had a historic valuation of around £4m.
However, the other regions will be looking for surety that any upside from any sale (set against debt) of the land to a developer(s) benefits the union, with potential for reinvestment back into the game. While unable to divulge the terms of the deal, asked if one would expect the union to have an overage position on the land, Mr Collier-Keywood said: “We are intelligent people. The beauty about the [Dragons] deal that was done with the Professional Rugby Board (PRB) is that this now has to be fair with all four regions and they have a view on that just as we have.”
On the wider relationship between the regions and the governing body, he said: “I do hope we will work more closely with the four regions and I think [PRB chair] Malcolm Wall has done a great job in setting the tone for that going forward. There was a very good meeting which I attended about a month ago in wanting to see a much greater degree of collaboration between ourselves and the regions. That was not always true in the past, without blaming anybody, but if you said one of the key things we would like to achieve going forward is a greater degree of collaboration from coaching to understanding some of the back office side of rugby clubs, that would make a lot of sense to me.”
Could this see one centralised commercial team across the WRU and the four regions? He said:“I don’t think there would be one commercial team, but there is much greater scope for more collaborational commercial deals, as well as on coaching and the things that make a real difference to the success of Wales. We are certainly open to that. And it doesn’t have to be led by the WRU either, but by one of the clubs. So, I don’t think everything has to get centralised into the WRU and if we are to be honest about being collaborative we might have to step back and be supportive in a convening rather than a total leadership role on some of these things as you want people to step forward and help basically.”
The four regions are facing significant real-terms cuts to their player budgets under a new six-year funding deal with the WRU.
Mr Collier-Keywood said: “We have made the decision that four regions is the right size for lots of good reasons around trying to keep the scale in Welsh rugby, trying to keep the interest in a broader fan base, and having enough nexus here for a very good set of international teams. I am comfortable with that decision, but the question is can this be sustainable going forward?
“For it to be sustainable we need to increase the fan base, we need to be successful as we need good sponsorship. It is all about making rugby more accessible and widening the diversity of the audience and things like the women’s game are really important to that. But I am not being unrealistic about that and recognise it is not easy and we will keep it under review to make sure it is sustainable.”
British Isles league and CVC deal
With the English club game under similar financial pressures, is a way forward for the professional game the creation of a British Isles league? That would require buy-in from a wide range of stakeholders both from a rugby and commercial perspective. The chairman said: “Where we are today is with the URC and that is what we are focused on and making that as successful as possible.”
Asked whether if he was chair he would have backed the deal with private equity CVC which has given it minority stakes in both the URC and the Six Nations, he said: “That’s a bit too far back in history for me.”
The proceeds from the URC deal, which will see the union drawing down around £30m from CVC, will go to the regions. For the Six Nations deal, for which drawdown runs up to 2026, the union will receive after costs – depending on commercial performance of the tournament – anything from £40.5m to £48.5m. The deal gives CVC 14.3% stake in the tournament.
Former WRU chief executive Steve Phillips planned to use a part of the CVC monies for capital-enhancing projects, though a proposed roof walk attraction at the Principality Stadium has been put on hold.
Asked it capital-enhancing projects, with the aim of generating long-term returns to be reinvested back into the game, would be a prudent move, he said: “Yes, I think that would be sensible personally, but first I want to get my hands around the budget and fairly shortly around the longer-term strategy when our new chief executive arrives, so I will be much more fulsome on answering that question say in six months’ time.”
On his strong Welsh connections, he said: “Mum was from Maesteg and was one of four sisters who grew up in Caerau. All four became teachers with two remaining in Wales and the other two leaving Wales. My mum met my dad (Richard) on a train during WW2. My dad was from Nottingham where my mum moved to when they got married. We used to spend all of our Christmases in Wales and most of our holidays in Porthcawl where we had a caravan on Sandy Bay.
“Mum was 4ft 11ins and the dominant force in our family, no doubt about it. She made it very clear to us when growing up that we were Welsh. I have very early memories of watching Wales playing rugby on TV with mum and her being on the edge of her chair all the time. Dad had to be a Welsh fan as his wife told him he had to be.
“I grew up with the great 1970s team and you would go to school and be very proud. I started to play a bit of rugby at Nottingham High School. I was okay but not exceptional, but I enjoyed it. I started as a prop forward, but as I didn’t grow much after the age of 13 I ended up in the centre and then on the wing.”