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Future of Welsh rugby at stake after misogyny allegations

A close up of a rugby ball, held under the arm of a player wearing a red Wales shirt.
Allegations of sex discrimination should be a watershed moment not only for Welsh rugby but the people of Wales. Shutterstock

When Prime Minister Harold Wilson said “a week is a long time in politics”, it’s unlikely that many thought Welsh rugby would one day be the subject of this truism. But a BBC Wales investigative documentary has exposed a “toxic culture” within the sport’s governing body, the Welsh Rugby Union (WRU), highlighting some very serious allegations of sexism and misogyny on the part of union employees.

The union’s CEO, Steve Phillips, resigned in the days following, saying it was time for someone else to lead the way. And an announcement was made that an investigation would be held into the culture of the Welsh game.

This should be a watershed moment – not only for rugby but, more contentiously, for the people of Wales. Rugby has huge historical and social importance for the country, and is a vital part of its national identity. What happens next is critical not only for the sport but for Wales as a whole.

However, knowing what to do next has a lot to do with understanding how we got here in the first place. And in that regard, there had been plenty of warnings to suggest that something seismic was about to happen in Welsh rugby.

In late 2021, businesswoman Amanda Blanc told the WRU it had “deep-rooted” cultural and behavioural problems when she resigned from chairing the Professional Rugby Board. In autumn of the same year, a group of 123 former women internationals launched a petition calling for improvements to the women’s game in Wales.

At that time, the WRU conducted a review into the women’s game, the results of which have yet to be published. But its current acting CEO Nigel Walker has told the Senedd a redacted version will be made available. Walker also apologised for the WRU’s handling of the sex-discrimination allegations that have emerged.

A female rugby player in red charges through a pack of rugby players in white with the ball under her arm.
Wales’ Sisilia Tuipulotu in action against England in the 2022 Six Nations Championship. Penallta Photographics/Alamy

Such incidents suggest the governing body has long had a patriarchal culture, which is reflected in the uniformity of its leadership. There is only one woman currently sitting on the WRU board, and no people of colour.

The events of the past week reflect a deep-seated challenge to ensure greater diversity in Welsh rugby. This is a goal which could do much to reduce the toxic masculinity that arises within some rugby practices and environments.

The institutional challenges faced by the WRU are aggravated by problems the sport faces as a whole. Research found that 55% of women and girls agreed that “many women feel unwelcome to play rugby because of the jokes and negative language some people use about women”. Some 37% had heard homophobic slurs at their club in the last year, while 59% had heard sexist slurs and negative jokes about women.

In the same week as the WRU crisis, transgender women in Scotland were banned from contact rugby. In England, there has been pushback against the Rugby Football Union’s edict on changes to the tackle law. (The governing body had wanted to lower the permitted tackle height to the waist for safety reasons, but this decision was met with opposition from across the game.)

Debates on player welfare, particularly regarding head injuries and concussion, as well as on attitudes towards alcohol and levels of aggression in rugby union are ongoing. Alongside the evident sex discrimination, it suggests rugby, at least in terms of how it might be perceived by outsiders, is in a reactive, out-of-step state.

For a growing part of the population, the sport can no longer be a neutral, innocent space for escaping everyday life. It is a place in which the spotlight of social justice is increasingly relevant.

By perpetuating the status quo for so long, the WRU has been unable to embrace the internal self-reflection and self-critique needed for gradual reform. This moral drift has made it a bigger and easier target for criticism when the revelations finally exploded.

A cloudy sky above the Principality Stadium. The river Taf runs alongside it.
The Principality Stadium in Cardiff is the home of Welsh rugby. Glitch Images/Shutterstock

Walker admits the future of Welsh rugby is in danger. Based on the experiences of other institutions such as the police, the BBC and the film industry, significant reform will be needed if the WRU wants to be an ongoing part of the conversation on the dynamics of Welsh society and culture.

A first step towards redemption is for the WRU to achieve greater diversity in its leadership, so as to better reflect the people of Wales. Having different voices will go a long way to preventing cultural and social inertia in the future.

Regarding the women’s game, a rethink of financial resources is needed. This should aim to meet the demands of grassroots players for more opportunities to participate. It should also enable women to play professional rugby in Wales on a par with the game in England, and to implement the principle of equal pay for men and women at international level.

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