ONE The Six Nations weekend in the Welsh capital is usually one full of fun, excitement and wild parties. Visit Wales’ description isn’t too long: “There’s nowhere on earth like Cardiff on international rugby day.”
But Saturday’s tournament opener against Ireland has been overshadowed by a terrifying sexism and misogyny scandal that has engulfed the Welsh Rugby Union (WRU), the sport’s governing body in Wales.
The game unfolds from women’s testimony in a BBC Wales Investigates documentary about a “toxic” culture at the WRU, with one former employee claiming a colleague told her in front of others he wanted to rape her and another woman saying he wrote a handbook for her husband in case he killed himself.
“I think it casts a shadow over the Six Nations,” said Cardiff cabinet member Jennifer Burke-Davies. He said the women’s evidence was damning and disturbing. “But as a woman I’m not particularly shocked. I have spent time in and around rugby. My family is a rugby family. There is a culture of toxic masculinity. Enables an environment in which unacceptable comments are made. But as a woman, am I surprised that these conversations have taken place? No way.”
Tonia Antoniazzi, a Welsh Labor MP and former Wales rugby international, has been raising the issue for months, bringing it to the House of Commons almost a year ago.
“I’ve had meetings with the Welsh Government about it, I’ve had conversations with many of the women involved, more than in the documentary,” she said. “Change should have happened, but no one was listening. When there is so much money, people will act to save their backs. The attitudes of the individuals at the WRU are absolutely disgusting. We need to see institutional change happen.”
Antoniazzi believes fans will still be able to separate the team from the governing body and enjoy the Six Nations. “I really hope this hasn’t affected the team and they can focus on the game. I’m so excited about it – like a big kid. This is the highlight of our rugby year.”
Lynn Glaister, the chairman of the CF10 Rugby Trust, which represents supporters of Cardiff Rugby and Cardiff RFC, said she was shocked by the details of the allegations. “But it doesn’t shock me that there is misogyny.”
Glaister said that in her 35 years watching matches, she had never experienced misogyny herself – and she is planning a Six Nations party this weekend, determined not to throw out the sport she loves. “Everyone mixes, there’s not as much swearing because there are kids. It feels safe. But these allegations are a real blow to the sport’s image,” he said.
The WRU, which has a turnover of £100m and governs 80,000 players and 300 clubs, says it is beginning to take action. Chief executive Steve Phillips stepped down and Nigel Walker, the former Cardiff and Wales winger, took over as acting chief executive. The organization announced that it wanted the next 12-person board to include at least five women (it currently has one).
As Cardiff prepared for the Irishman’s visit, Walker and another Welsh rugby legend, Ieuan Evans, now WRU chairman, were summoned by the Senedd committee with responsibility for sport.
Their evidence was harsh. Walker admitted there were “warning signs” and said the organization was in “denial”. He told the committee: “I think in any organisation, especially a big one like the Welsh Rugby Union, it’s possible that things will happen over a period of time and people will turn a blind eye and not deal with these problems.”
She accepted that running was a male-dominated sport. “It’s the uncle of the person who ran the club last year or five years ago, 10 years ago, someone else’s nephew – we need to expand it and make it more open. But that will take time.”
Evans said the WRU realized it had let down the “rugby family” across Wales. “We are at an existential point in our history. This is a Damascene moment for us.” He said an external task force would be set up to look into the allegations, headed by a woman with a legal background.
Welsh Government Deputy Sports Minister Don Bowden was also invited to the meeting. He said he discussed sexism with the WRU last year but had not seen any formal complaints or allegations, so what he could do was limited. He was accused by opposition politicians of not doing enough when it was clear there were deep problems.
Dan Allsobrook, an experienced grassroots rugby protection officer and member of the Gwladrugby rugby supporters’ network, attended the meeting and was unconvinced by promises of change. “Misogyny, sexism, sexual harassment have been systemic problems at the WRU for many years,” he said. “The WRU’s modus operandi has always been silence and closure. The board in its current form must be disbanded.”
The WRU’s move that attracted the most attention this week, however, was its order to remove Tom Jones’ 1968 hit Delilah from the matchday playlist because it refers to violence against a woman. Tories in Wales criticized the move as “virtue signalling”.
Gary Corp, the manager of the City Arms pub opposite the Principality Stadium, said he planned to blast the song on his outdoor speakers. “I’m playing it man. I’m sick and tired of being told what we can and can’t do,” he said. “The WRU are in trouble and want to see them do the right thing. They dig themselves a hole.”
Controversy continued to pile up as the start of the Six Nations approached. Some people were upset that a popular mural near the stadium depicting a young black woman was painted over with an image of Welsh rugby international George North, along with an advertisement for a luxury watch.
And more than 7,000 people have signed a petition calling on the WRU to launch a rebrand, removing its three-wing crest, which is associated with the Prince of Wales.
Businesses in the city were worried that mood during an important weekend was about to be dampened. Bob Rice, the owner of the Castle Welsh Crafts shop, said: “All this is not going to help the atmosphere. There is a small cloud above. We have to hope that they will solve it.”
Jon Williams, from Rugby Shop Wales, said: “It’s not exactly helpful. We’ve heard some terrible things, but I think people can still get behind the team.”
Near the entrance to Cardiff Market, an Irish flag flew to greet visitors. “Everybody should be able to feel safe and protected at work,” said Mary Kemble, the owner of Crockers Brunch Bar, which should be filling up with diners just before opening on Saturday. “It’s good that we’re talking about it now and I hope it doesn’t take the shine off what should be a great sporting weekend.”