Inside Wales’ averted strike crisis that almost cancelled a Six Nations clash

Rugby

It was at roughly 5.50 p.m. on Wednesday evening when word of a resolution between the Welsh rugby team and the sport’s powerbrokers emerged from the squad’s hotel on the outskirts of Cardiff. Strike action had been averted. Wales’ third match of the men’s Six Nations against England — their blockbuster fixture — would go ahead. Rugby let out a sigh of relief.

Just a few hours previous, it had been in the balance. Wales’ players were considering the last-resort option of boycotting the weekend’s match, such was their displeasure with how they had been treated by the people in charge of the sport. It’s been a tumultuous week. Word of a potential strike broke on Feb. 14, and players had given a deadline of Feb. 22 for various demands to be met. If there was no resolution, there would be no match. The players had reached the end of their tether.

It was an unprecedented situation and Welsh rugby was in crisis.

The build-up to Deadline Day

The roots of the Welsh rugby crisis go back to the creation of the regions in 2003-04 — the model has been contentious since their introduction – but the financial instability in the sport and in Wales was made worse by the knock-on effect of COVID-19. The players took a pay cut in April 2020 but, though they won the Six Nations title in March 2021, any signs of improvement and evolution were shortlived.

By the start of 2023, Wayne Pivac had been sacked as Wales manager, talks over a six-year funding model for the game in Wales had failed to reach a conclusion, and WRU CEO Steve Phillips resigned amid allegations of sexism and misogyny in the organisation.

By mid-February, Wales’ men had lost their opening two matches of the Six Nations to Ireland and Scotland, respectively. Warren Gatland — the man who steered the country to three Six Nations Grand Slams between 2008 and 2019 — was back in charge and even his superb coaching resume could not get the new-coach bounce effect in terms of results. Behind the scenes, there was growing unease amid the players.

Central to the frustration were the ongoing negotiations and content of the new funding model for Welsh rugby. It was to be a six-year deal that would determine the spending in Welsh rugby — this includes wage budgets for the four regions and internationals. As everyone waited for it to be signed, contract talks were put on ice.

As many as 80 players have contracts expiring in June 2023 and the uncertainty and instability had reached boiling point. Players ranging from established internationals, those at the regions, and youngsters coming through were all waiting to see if they would have to move clubs, house, or even pursue a different career in just four months’ time.

On Feb. 14 — the Tuesday of the fallow week between the second and third fixtures — there was little love in the air as the Daily Mail ran a story detailing Wales’ players frustration and said they were considering strike action as a last resort to find some sort of resolution. The Wales international team were considering boycotting their next Six Nations match if certain demands were not met by the powers that be. That match was against England in Cardiff, the WRU’s bi-annual fixture which generates in the region of £9 million.

The Wales team’s displeasure was vented at the WRU — the body in charge of the Welsh national team. But it is another organisation called the Welsh Professional Rugby Board (PRB) which oversees the entire sport in Wales and holds the purse strings. The PRB is made up of representatives from the four regions – Blues, Scarlets, Dragons, Ospreys – two figures from the WRU and two independent members. They have final sign-off on the new funding model, but crucially, as the discussions rumbled on, the players had no say in matters.

On Feb. 16, Welsh legend and all-time capped men’s rugby player Alun Wyn Jones confirmed strike action was on the table, but only as a last resort. Behind the scenes, the players had given the WRU a deadline of Feb. 22 to meet certain demands. The players wanted three things to change, and to end the contract impasse:

  1. The first was for a player-representative to be part of the PRB. This would be Welsh Rugby Players’ Association (WRPA) CEO Gareth Lewis, the body representing player interests in Wales.

  2. The players also wanted the WRU’s 60-cap rule abolished (this controversial rule means if a player has under 60 caps, they must play for one of the four Welsh regions to be available for international duty).

  3. And they wanted the scrapping of the new variable contract model proposed by the PRB. This controversial model would see players offered deals 80% guaranteed income, and 20% performance-related bonuses.

On Feb. 19 on BBC’s Scrum V, PRB chair Malcolm Wall said progress was being made, but elsewhere in the game there were few signs of the deadlock being broken. All this just six days out from their marquee match against England. Gatland had been set to name his Wales team to face England on Tuesday but as talks continued, he postponed the announcement.

“I’m confident that with discussions taking place, hopefully something will get resolved,” Gatland said. “With the uncertainty of what’s happening… there’s been a lot of meetings going on, so I just wanted to make sure we got clarity in terms of the boys.

“There are no assurances, but I’m hearing positive things from both sides. Hopefully the discussions will be acceptable to both sides in terms of getting some compromise and we can get on with the game.”

Resolution… for now

Feb. 22 was billed as ‘Deadline Day.’ That was the key date: Either the players would reach a compromise with the powerbrokers, or they would opt for the nuclear option of going on strike.

The PRB met the morning of Feb. 22 with the WRPA in the room – though they were not yet allowed a vote on matters.

At 3.15 p.m. on Wednesday, the players, the WRPA and the PRB met at the Vale of Glamorgan Hotel on the outskirts of Cardiff. The meeting lasted 90 minutes. Both parties went separate ways, agreeing to meet again in 30 minutes or so. The brief second meeting established a compromise between the two parties. Strike action was averted. The players would play England. Moments later, interim WRU CEO Nigel Walker and Wales captain Ken Owens faced the media.

“I’m pleased to announce that after extensive conversations and discussions over the last week that the Wales England game will go ahead as scheduled,” Walker said. “It’s important that going forward, we continue the dialogue which we’ve had over the last week or so, but not under the circumstances we’ve had over the last week or so. And Ken [Owens, Wales captain] and I and some of the senior players will be meeting more regularly than perhaps we have been in the past.”

Walker announced Lewis had attended the meeting, and the 60-cap rule would be reduced to a lower barrier of 25 caps. He also said there would be room for manoeuvre on the controversial contract model.

Owens, Wales’ captain, said he was “disappointed” it had got to this stage but said the key to preventing this from occurring in the future was improved communication between all parties.

“It’s been a difficult period over the last sort of year, 18 months. And hopefully we don’t end up here again,” Owens said. “It’s got to be a long-term solution because Welsh rugby can’t keep going around on this merry-go-round of crisis after crisis because it’s affecting everybody in the game: players, supporters, administrators, grassroots clubs, everybody.”

But it was Owen’s description of Welsh rugby as a “laughingstock” which grabbed most people’s attention. It was a brutal assessment of the state of the game from one of its most-admired leaders. But for now, there was détente.

The players will take to the field in the cauldron of the Principality Stadium, where they will be looking for their first victory of this year’s Six Nations, having already secured a win of sorts earlier in the week.

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