Gloucester has never fitted rugby union's stuffed-shirt stereotype, but not even the seething masses who populate the Kingsholm Shed know quite what to make of Ryan Walkinshaw. "You'll always have people who are negative and who say 'what the hell is this 23-year-old doing?'" admits the newest, brashest board member in the game, with his swept-back blond hair, eyebrow stud and blissed-out summers spent DJ-ing in Ibiza. "But the management system of the club has not changed apart from dad not being there to give his guidance."
Dad, as everyone in English rugby knows, was Tom Walkinshaw, the former Gloucester and Premiership chairman – and racing driver, engineer and Formula One team owner – who passed away from cancer aged 64 last December. In the course of three years fighting the pernicious disease which began in his bladder, went away and came back, he planned meticulously for Ryan to inherit his businesses when he was gone. The son gives every sign of rising to the challenge.
"We'll keep Gloucester prospering and growing and eventually it might make a couple of quid," says Ryan. "Until it does, we'll keep backing it. A lot of fans realise it's better to keep it in the family rather than let an investment bank take it over and strip it out. Or an oligarch come along and change the name to Red Bull Rugby or something like that. If that happened I'd be hanging from the beams of The Shed."
Tom had 14 years on the Gloucester board and two stints as the chairman of England's top clubs – during which he successfully argued for a salary cap – and was known on occasion to grab a microphone and address the supporters from the middle of the pitch. Anecdotally, it was said his ideal board meeting would have comprised one person. "Dad wanted to have his club that he loved coming to at weekends, even when that was his only free time," says Ryan. "The only day off he'd have was Christmas."
Ryan's diary is similarly packed. He left for India and Australia after the final regular-season match against Sale – a 68-17 win that confirmed Gloucester's surprise third-placed finish – and will track today's Premiership semi-final against Saracens at Watford on the internet.
He is busy with strategy and board meetings at Holden Special Vehicles – Australian-based engineers of souped-up road cars – and a championship-winning racing team Down Under. Trusted associates of his dad are advising him, including David McKnight, the new Gloucester chairman, Ken Nottage, the club's chief executive, and Jeff Browne, chairman of HSV, who was his father's lawyer and is managing director of Channel Nine in Australia.
Not that this is a rugby novice. Ryan has been on pre-season tours with the Gloucester squad, and did gap-year work experience selling tickets, mowing the pitch, doing a coaching certificate and so on. He was a First XV hooker at Radley College, close in Oxfordshire to where Tom Walkinshaw Racing was based.
Until his father's illness, Ryan was concentrating on music as a career. An old website shows him hunched over his decks and quotes a list of techno influences that are a mystery to this writer. "There's nothing more fun than going to a club and having 10,000 people paying to watch you," Ryan says. "I've worked the Zoo club in Ibiza for three summers – twice a week, every week, 6,000 people in the open air." His younger brother Sean has the motoring gene: he is doing his A-levels but has begun driving in Formula Renault. Ryan quit Newcastle University because "I wanted to get out and actually do it rather than listening to a lecturer who, if he was that good, would have his own business making money for himself".
The thrust after Tom Walkinshaw's passing was to reassure season-ticketholders of the line of succession, and investment, from the family as joint owners with Martin St Quinton. "The great part of Gloucester rugby is its tradition and its heritage," says Ryan, bright-eyed and tanned of face as we look across the Kingsholm turf where no self-respecting ear comes without a cauliflower. "Rugby is becoming more modern and cool and a sexy sport in some ways. We've got to keep up to date with that if we want to expand. There's 100,000 people in Gloucester and we're already getting 16,000 per match. We've got to push further in Swindon and Cheltenham and Cirencester and maybe even steal a few Bath fans on the way."
Gloucester have stuck to the salary cap, to the extent that three internationals – Dave Attwood, Nicky Robinson and Paul Doran-Jones – are leaving for Bath, Wasps and Northampton respectively. "We could talk about investing an extra million and get Dan Carter," says Ryan, "but we could get caught spending over the salary cap, and I'd rather not spend £5 million in fines. We don't have the money to go over it. I think Dario Chistolini [a prop from Italy] will make a big impact. Doran-Jones, before he came here, was a nobody. Now look at him."
Ryan was closely involved with extending James Simpson-Daniel's contract by three years, dissuading him from moving to France. The captain Mike Tindall has signed for another year, but he is injured. Names like Freddie Burns, Jonny May, Henry Trinder, Charlie Sharples and Dave Lewis have pushed themselves forward. Ryan, who played against Danny Cipriani at school, enjoys the "banter" with these contemporaries. "Still you need a few old heads to give them a slap when they step out of line," he says. "Tindall gives them a bit of a bollocking when he needs to. He's averaging a lot of money per game and has a talent for getting injured with England. At the same time he's really important and is someone the young guys look up to."
Jet lag appears to be this particular young guy's only worry, and even that gets a rapid brush-off. He is booked to arrive back in London at 7am on the morning of the Premiership final. "I'll go to the hotel, get showered and changed, go to the lunch and hopefully watch Gloucester in the final. I'm confident we'll be there."
The Walkinshaw sporting dynasty
Tom Walkinshaw, 64, passed away last December, survived by his first wife Elizabeth and their son Fergus, and his second wife Martine and their sons Ryan and Sean.
Tom began motor racing in 1968, driving an MG Midgetat a local track in Scotland before competing in many classes, notably touring cars. In the mid-1970s he set up Tom Walkinshaw Racing (TWR) to design road and race cars.
Though involved as an engineer or owner in Formula One teams Ligier, Benetton – he helped to sign Michael Schumacher – and Arrows, perhaps his greatest achievement was helping restore Jaguar to the winner's podium in the Le Mans 24-hour race in 1988 after a 31-year gap. Latterly, his focus was in Australia with Holden Special Vehicles and Holden Racing.
Tom joined the Gloucester RFC board in 1997 and was twice chairman of Premier Rugby Ltd, experiencing the game's growing pains in the open era. Fergus was driving last season in the Ginetta G55 Championship, and teenager Sean is in his first year driving for Hillspeed in Formula Renault. Ryan succeeded his father as the joint owner of Gloucester Rugby with Martin St Quinton.Reuse content