Another day, another crisis for the union

A nation in turmoil: The scapegoat hunt gathers pace as Wales' major sport lurches from faux pas to farce
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The Independent Online

The wagons were circled around the latest home of the Welsh Rugby Union in Cardiff last week. The scenes were reminiscent of many other sieges from the Eighties and Nineties when the most publicly scrutinised, and so often vilified, body in Wales once again found itself cast in the role of villain.

There is nothing quite like a good or bad rugby story to set the pulses racing in the Principality. Rugby and gossip are key ingredients in the staple diet of life in Wales, and when the two can be combined, especially with the WRU to aim at, everyone jumps on the bandwagon. Life at the WRU is an ongoing soap opera which often attracts as much attention as Coronation Street or EastEnders. You only have to look at the increase in radio and TV chat shows and readers' letters in the regional press to realise that rugby rules in Wales.

"We all know that Welsh rugby lives constantly in the spotlight. I guess it has been like that ever since 1881 when the union was formed," the secretary, Dennis Gethin, said. "The events of recent weeks have been rather dramatic and, in some cases, alarming. They have brought into question not only the internal workings and integrity of the union, but also the character of thenation as a whole.

"We do tend to get very emotive about all matters of rugby in Wales and that often makes life difficult. What a lot ofpeople often forget is that we are not running a pastime, but a multi-million-pound company.

"When your practices and reputation as a company are undermined you have to be very careful and measured in your response. Knee-jerkreaction to criticism, fair or otherwise, has never been the style of the WRU, and in all that has been going on over the past weeks our major concern has been to respond to the International Board's requests for information and explanation.

"The frenzy that has surrounded the eligibility row, and the resignation of Steve Black, has been trying and hard to handle. What it hasn't done, however, is divert the focus of the WRU from continuing to look after the best interests of Wales' national sport. We are determined to build our business into one of the most competitive in its field."

The recent dramas began two weeks ago with the "Grannygate" affair, questioning the eligibility of Kiwi imports Brett Sinkinson and Shane Howarth. All of a sudden the hunt for blameworthy targets escalated into open season on anyone wearing a WRU blazer badge. There are more than enough of those, and many of them displayed sidesteps that would have graced Phil Bennett or Gerald Davies as the barbs began to fly.

Union officials quickly found themselves facing calls for their resignation in local newspaper leader columns, there were further claims regarding an alleged £15m shortfall in Rugby World Cup revenue, a potential £200,000 lawsuit from Twickenham for Grand Slam damages and talk of a potential £1m fine from the IRB for playing ineligible players.

And as if that was not bad enough, Scottish journalists travelling to last weekend's Six Nations game against Wales in Cardiff raised the spectre of the Fraud Squad becoming involved in the Sinkinson and Howarth situation - South Wales Police confirmed there might possibly be a case to answer but, as yet, they had received no complaints and were not considering aninvestigation. Not even a 26-18 victory over the Scots provided much relief.

No sooner were the victory celebrations over than the next crisis was firmly on the agenda with the shock resignation of the national conditioning coach, Steve Black.

The amiable and charismatic Geordie had come under increasing fire over recent months for his methods. The Welsh players were described as fat, unfit and not remotely in the same physical shape as Clive Woodward's England side. Black, with 13 wins in 20 internationals over an 18- month period, including a first win in Paris for 25 years, atriumph over England at Wembley and a first win over South Africa under his belt, headed back to the North-east in anattempt to keep his professional pride intact.

Now the media really had something to get their teeth into, especially as the Welsh team management were talking of conspiracies and pointing an accusatorial finger at the journalists for the role they had played in seemingly pushing Black over the edge. So, who would be next to go? Graham Henry? That was the big speculation last weekend as the £1m coach had his commitment to the Welsh cause put under the microscope.

While the story about Black broke the day after the victory over Scotland, the press pack were back on the hunt for another headline. Henry provided the ammunition, if not the type that some had hoped for. "I am here to stay until 2003," said the Kiwi-born coach.

It was certainly the calm after the storm. After all, in the hours preceding a lunchtime meeting of minds, the mediaoffice at the WRU had taken more than 50 calls from panting journalists hot on the trail of another possible exclusive.

Only rugby can do this in Wales, and all this happened two days after 72,500 fans had brought around £12m into the regional economy, filled the pubs and clubs and left one Italian restaurant owner more than happy. On match day he grossed £28,000 and made £20,000 profit. At least someone is happy with the WRU.