An independent review of the Welsh Rugby Union has delivered a damning verdict on a “toxic” culture of bullying and discrimination, allied to widespread political infighting and general incompetence in the organisation.
A BBC Wales programme broadcast in January prompted an outcry after a number of former employees made allegations of sexism and discrimination experienced while working for the WRU. Inadequate governance, a lack of focus on and commitment to building the women’s game, internal political tensions and a culture of bullying and misogyny are all highlighted in the report published on Tuesday.
It paints a comprehensive picture of failure in an “unforgiving, even vindictive” environment that was experienced by some employees. “We asked the WRU to confirm that the factual content of our report is accurate, and they did,” the report states.
Having been appointed in February, the review panel of three – the chair, Dame Anne Rafferty, Quentin Smith and Maggie Alphonsi – have made 36 recommendations for improvements and reforms. These include the appointment of an oversight body, continued reform of the WRU board, increasing investment in the women’s game, and aligning the organisation “clearly and publicly” with inclusion and diversity.
More than 50 witnesses or groups of witnesses were interviewed during the seven-month investigation, including amateur and professional players, senior and junior staff at professional and amateur clubs and external stakeholders, with 5,000 pages of documentary evidence considered.
Summing up its overall governance culture, the report quotes a former director of the WRU saying: “The board was both frightened of what they had to do and unaware of what they had to do: if I ask the right question, I don’t know what to do with the answer. So it’s much better not to ask the question.”
The report also describes a general failure of governance, saying the WRU lacked “the appropriate skills to run a £100m business” and that it “was an organisation unsure on its feet, allowing problems to develop and with a tendency to manage the problem rather than the underlying issue”.
“The governance culture has been criticised as too political,” it states, with one manager quoted as saying: “I don’t know who to trust. I feel like I’m not being 100% true to myself because there are things that I’d want to call out, address or bring up but I felt vulnerable because I don’t trust people.”
Abi Tierney, the incoming WRU Group chief executive, who begins her role in January, said: “The independent 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 … We will implement all of the recommendations the independent review panel has made.”
Richard Collier-Keywood, the WRU chair who was appointed in June, said: “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 that 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 …
“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.”
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Steve Phillips resigned as chief executive within a week of the BBC programme being broadcast in January. In a letter included in the report, Amanda Blanc, the former chief executive who resigned in November 2021, writes of Philips’s appointment: “This was another example of a really poor governance process that would never have been approved in any other organisation I have experienced around the world.”
In explaining her resignation Blanc had said she was “beyond disappointed” with a review into the women’s game, which “verged on the insulting”. Blanc had alleged: “The board has discussed an allegation of bullying of a female member of staff but spent most of the time on how to defend the man concerned.”
She also said the WRU was “sitting on a ticking time bomb” in terms of diversity and inclusion. Described in the report as “one of the UK’s most senior female corporate executives”, it says she had been asked by a fellow board member: “What do you know about governance?”
The report includes the caveat that the situation may have improved in the organisation as “many of the people involved have moved on”. The conclusions “do not mean that all – or even most – people have experienced bullying or discriminatory behaviour,” it says, but “a significant number did experience a toxic environment of the type we have described”.
Nigel Walker, the WRU’s interim chief executive, said: “We very much welcome the hard work and scrutiny of the review panel and we have already said that the recommendations of the independent review will be implemented in full. We are determined to lead a culture everyone in Welsh rugby can be proud of.”