Welsh Rugby Union responds after Cardiff director Hayley Parsons calls for board and chief executive to leave

By Beth FisherBBC Sport Wales
Hayley Parsons founded price comparison website Gocompare.com in 2006
Hayley Parsons founded price comparison website Gocompare.com in 2006

All four regions have backed calls by a Cardiff director for Welsh Rugby Union (WRU) chief executive Steve Phillips and the board to leave.

BBC Wales understands the email from Hayley Parsons has been sent to WRU chair Ieuan Evans.

The message was also circulated to Cardiff, Dragons, Ospreys and Scarlets, who have backed its content.

Evans said the WRU is "not deaf to the observations and criticisms" it has received.

He said: "I thank Hayley for her constructive and heartfelt comments and I will not only write back in detail but intend to meet up in person just as I will with a number of different stakeholders from outside of the WRU.

"As I made clear in statements yesterday, I will now lead on the composition of a new externally sourced taskforce which will review our culture, systems and structures.

"We need to respond to the public scrutiny we are currently experiencing, but this is also the right thing to do. We are listening."

Parsons' email followed allegations of sexism, racism and misogyny within the organisation, highlighted by a BBC Wales Investigates programme this week.

Phillips has faced mounting calls to resign over the governing body's handling of the complaints.

The 58-year-old has apologised but says he is still the best person to lead the WRU and has not considered his position.

Chairman Evans has backed him to continue in the role though confirmed an external taskforce will investigate the organisation.

Two women have complained of a toxic culture, while another former employee heard a racist term used in a work meeting.

Former head of Wales women's rugby Charlotte Wathan said she considered suicide and said a male colleague joked in front of others in an office that he wanted to "rape" her.

The WRU says that accusation was independently investigated and remains unsubstantiated and that it cannot comment further due to a legal settlement.

'He joked he wanted to rape me', claims Charlotte Wathan

Parsons' plea

Parsons become the first female to serve on Cardiff's board when she was appointed a non-executive director in 2019.

In the email to Evans, she describes herself as a "business professional and entrepreneur, who founded a multimillion-pound business that remains in Wales".

The founder of the price comparison website GoCompare, she sold her stake in the company for almost £44m.

Her correspondence urges Evans to "take immediate and decisive action to address the issues raised in the programme, but also against a backdrop of a long-standing and deep-rooted culture of toxicity and bullying within the WRU".

"In my role at Cardiff Rugby, I constantly witness and have to deal with the fallout of incompetence at the Welsh Rugby Union," wrote Parsons.

"I believe the board, in its current state, does not possess the expertise and experience to run the WRU, which is essentially a £100m company.

"As a group of individuals, they are not fit for purpose, and the future of Welsh rugby requires people with the capability and experience to turn this urgent and dire situation around.

"Many people have told me first-hand about the culture of bullying and manipulation within the WRU."

In his response, WRU chair Evans added: "We must re-examine, re-evaluate, act decisively where we find wrongdoing, and move forwards.

"We will do this together, we take responsibility together. We will also seek outside influence and counsel as well as looking within to the likes of our independent board directors as Hayley suggests.

"I am already on public record, in a letter I wrote to member clubs for the new year, with my ambitions to evolve the governance structure of the WRU with the clubs and we will address this challenge with renewed vigour immediately.

"We will use the pressure we are under now, the pressure we have drawn on ourselves, to get better, to improve. I will not waver from this task."

Cardiff's Richard Holland, Ospreys' Chris Lawlor, Dragons' David Buttress, and Scarlets chairman Simon Muderack sit on the Professional Rugby Board as the regional representatives
Cardiff's Richard Holland, Ospreys' Chris Lawlor, Dragons' David Buttress and Scarlets chairman Simon Muderack sit on the Professional Rugby Board as the regional representatives

It has since emerged that Amanda Blanc, who chaired Welsh rugby's professional board between 2019 and 2021, warned the WRU it had a problem before the sexism claims emerged.

Ms Blanc, now chief executive of Aviva insurance company, told the WRU it had "deep-rooted" culture and behavioural problems, that a union-commissioned review into the women's game was "insulting to women" and warned of an equality and diversity "ticking timebomb".

"How many more experienced, professional and good people need to leave Welsh rugby before you take action and say enough is enough?" asked Parsons.

"I am pleading with you to make the right decision for the WRU, as a business and for rugby as our national sport.

"You are surrounded by amazing business professionals who already invest their time and energy into Welsh rugby.

"We need a clear overarching business strategy the whole of Welsh rugby and its regions can work towards.

"This week's crisis isn't new, it's just brought the underlying issues that we have experienced for years to the fore."

‘We will address the issues we need to address’ - WRU chair Ieuan Evans

'Dominant' union

Parsons criticised what she says is the union's financial hold over the regions with no new long-term financial deal yet to be agreed.

"As regions, we have been in crisis for so long, our only strategy at present is survival. To stay afloat in the hope that the governance of the WRU is changed soon so we can make it to the next season," she wrote.

"This cannot carry on - we all deserve better, as do our players, staff and fans.

"As regional clubs we hold back on a range of issues, too scared to go against the Union.

"Yet still, despite allegation after allegation, mistake after mistake, sacking after sacking, statement after statement, denial after denial, the WRU does not appear to have modern governance structures or a proper strategic business plan in place to affect positive change and nurture rugby at a regional, never mind national level.

"The WRU's dedicated and hardworking staff, most of whom are a credit to the game and work tirelessly to champion it, are being failed by the WRU's continued unwillingness to accept responsibility for the failures at board level to tackle the toxic and oppressive culture within the union.

"The treatment of its staff, regional clubs and dominance and total control over the game has to change now.

"The only way to remedy these issues is to appoint a new board made up of people who know how to run a union and a business properly, with a thought out, well-executed business strategy, and stringent and clear governance system."

Parsons recognised Evans has been calling for governance reform since he took over in November 2022.

The WRU stated it was calling an extraordinary general meeting (EGM) of clubs for early 2023 to try to modernise the organisation, although no date has been announced.

"We must restore confidence in the leadership of our game, and I'm sure we will all as regions, commit to supporting you in delivering those changes," added Parsons.

"Please don't underestimate our combined determination, frustration, disappointment, shame and despair at what is, and has been happening at the WRU.

"We will not stop campaigning until change is actioned, until the current CEO (chief executive) and the WRU board is either sacked or resign to safeguard the future of Welsh rugby.

"The WRU needs to clean up its act, listen to its staff, players, fans and work with regions to make a positive change for the future."

Club pressure

In a joint statement, all 12 Welsh Premier Division clubs said they were "astonished and appalled" by the allegations.

They added: "The premier clubs expect swift and decisive action to be taken, in addressing these extremely serious and damaging allegations, that will eradicate this appalling alleged behaviour and provide a future that is accessible and comfortable, for all within Welsh rugby."

Llantwit Fardre RFC have also sent a letter expressing no confidence in chief executive Phillips, while other clubs have revealed concerns.

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