The mixed Welsh rugby legacy of departing WRU chief Roger Lewis

By Huw Llywelyn DaviesBBC Wales rugby commentator
Roger Lewis and Warren Gatland
Roger Lewis with Warren Gatland in Dubai, December 2001

Roger Lewis's legacy as chief executive of the Welsh Rugby Union will be mixed, as will people's opinion of how successful he's been during his nine years in charge.

He can leave justifiably proud of the many achievements enjoyed by Welsh rugby during his time at the helm both on and off the field.

It's no surprise perhaps for someone who came to the union from a business background within the broadcasting industry that most people will consider that his biggest contribution has been on the financial side with the bank balance now in a far healthier state than when he joined in 2006.

Six Nations winners

Since 2006/7 turnover has increased by 35% and the bank debt has been reduced by almost 50% to an all time low of £14 million.

He has also been very successful in attracting major events to Cardiff in his role as chief executive of the Millennium Stadium, including 11 2012 Olympic football matches.

This year Lewis will oversee eight Rugby World Cup matches staged there - more, incidentally than were held there in 1999 when Wales was the host country.

In 2007 France hosted the event, but still some games came to the Cardiff venue, which has also seen many musical events and pop concerts, all naturally adding to the much healthier financial state of Welsh rugby.

Roger Lewis' CV

On the field, he was the man responsible for changing the national coaching and management teams after the bitter blow of losing to Fiji and failing to qualify from their group in the 2007 World Cup.

Gareth Jenkins was promptly sacked and Roger Lewis travelled to New Zealand to persuade Warren Gatland to come over to take charge of the Welsh national team and in that respect he can take some of the credit for the relative success of the past few years.

There were Grand Slams in 2008 and 2012, beating England at Twickenham for the first time in 20 years on the way; a dramatic Six Nations in 2013, when England were beaten by a record score.

A record score against Scotland followed in 2014 and in 2011 Wales came agonisingly close to reaching the World Cup final in New Zealand, losing by just a single point to France in the semi-final despite being reduced to 14 men for most of the game after the sending off of captain Sam Warburton.

The most successful period without doubt for the Welsh team since the 1970s - despite the dismal record persisting against the powerhouses of the southern hemisphere.

Those facts present one side of the coin, but detractors will say that Roger Lewis was obsessed with success at the top level both financially and from the point of view of success on the international field and concentrated far too much on that world stage to the detriment of rugby at lower levels in Wales.

The accusation has been that some of the money that went in pursuit of reducing the debt should have been spent on promoting and sustaining the game at the community level, at the grass roots level, where teams are struggling to survive.

And while the national side has had its successes, standards at regional level have steadily declined with hardly any success in the European competitions and only a little better in the Pro12.

Gareth Jenkins was sacked in 2007

And because of that, perhaps - unkindly - the Roger Lewis era will be remembered more than anything as one of the most acrimonious in the history of Welsh Rugby.

Arguments between the union and the four Welsh regions became very nasty and personal at times, so serious at one period that it threatened the whole future of the game in Wales.

Although Roger Lewis did finally sign a six-year Rugby Services Agreement with the four regions in August 2014 guaranteeing the regions £60m along with a national dual contracts agreement.

The dispute over the funding and governance of the game had proved very divisive and corrosive, culminating with David Moffett, a former chief executive of both sides of the divide, the Welsh Rugby Union helping to challenge the regime at an extraordinary general meeting.

Rewind: WRU chief Roger Lewis rues 'tough' year of negotiations

Although that motion was roundly rejected, there were major consequences with David Pickering the WRU chairman and a close ally and advocate of Roger Lewis later defeated in an election ballot by the member clubs.

As Newport Gwent Dragons chief executive Gareth Davies had been at the other extreme to Roger Lewis in the bitter WRU v regions row.

Davies was elected to the WRU board as Pickering was voted off and the former was immediately installed as chairman.

Although, officially on the surface harmony had been restored, the old wounds inevitably were still there.

And so, perhaps, it's not that much of a surprise with a new regime now in place that Lewis's term is coming to an end.

He will leave on a high, saying his farewells at the major event in World Rugby's calendar, holding his head high as he reflects on his many positive contributions to Welsh Rugby.

But he also knows he presided over one of the most difficult and bitter periods for the game in Wales - a man admired by many, but not loved by all.

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