Nigel Walker is the first to acknowledge he has a lot on his plate in his new role in Welsh rugby, but insists he had no hesitation in taking the job.
The former Wales wing has come on board as the WRU’s Performance Director, a position which has been unoccupied since Ryan Jones resigned in October 2020.
He’s well qualified for the role, having spent 11 years as national director of the English Institute of Sport, which provides support to the GB Olympic and Paralympic teams.
But, nevertheless, his appointment did raise a few eyebrows given it was only back in April he gave an interview to Gist Vile where he was pretty critical of the WRU.
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At the time, he warned that Welsh rugby was facing a looming catastrophe unless the Union changed course, raising grave concerns over their treatment of the regions.
But now we find him employed by the WRU and working under chief executive Steve Phillips, a key figure in terms of the funding decisions which impact the four pro teams.
So how does he square that circle?
“It won’t surprise you to know I’ve had a number of conversations with Steve,” he said.
“Some of those before I was appointed and some of those after.
“If I didn’t think I could work with Steve and that we didn’t have a shared ambition for the game in Wales, I wouldn’t be sitting in this seat now.”
As for how much thought he had to give to accepting the job offer, the 58-year-old said: “It wasn’t a difficult decision at all.
“I used to pay to go and watch Cardiff play when I was 12, 13. Gerald Davies was my favourite player.
“Welsh rugby is in my blood. This is something I feel passionate about and if I didn’t think I could make a difference I wouldn’t have accepted the offer to come and work for the Welsh Rugby Union.”
So does he feel he can play a part in addressing some of the issues he raised back in April?
“Absolutely,” he replies.
Walker has a wide remit, with responsibility for all aspects of the elite game in Wales, but it’s not a challenge that fazes him.
“I have just come from a job with 400 members of staff spread over nine sites in England, dealing with Olympic and paralympic sport,” he said.
“All the science and medicine-oligies, physiology, physiotherapy, psychology, strength and conditioning.
“I have done all of that. I am used to juggling balls.
“I have got a number of priorities, a number of areas to the job and I will be taking those forward as quickly as I can.”
Day one in his new post saw him meeting the media to discuss the future of women’s rugby in Wales, amid the announcement of an autumn series against Japan, South Africa and Canada for the senior side and the unveiling of an interim coaching team.
“The women’s game is front and centre,” said Walker, speaking at the Arms Park, where he scorched the earth as a player for Cardiff.
“It’s been made very clear to me it’s one of my priorities and I am happy to take that on.”
The WRU has come in for heavy flak of late for their handling of the women’s game, with the national team having not won a match in two years.
More than 100 ex-Wales players recently published an open letter demanding change from the WRU, while Olympic star Jasmine Joyce revealed she now has to work a full-time job to support her rugby career.
“There is a lot of valid criticism been flying about,” said Walker.
“Some of it I recognise.
“My dad used to say to me every day ‘Only an idiot knows everything Nigel’.
“I don’t know everything and I am open to advice, taking on board some of the commentary which has been about.
“I am all ears. I will be consulting widely, I will be talking to people and taking on board what they have to say.
“There is a recognition that women’s rugby hasn’t been given the focus that perhaps it should have been given in recent times.
“It is going to be one of my priorities going forward.
“It’s a challenge, but the resource is going to be made available.
“There is more money in the pot for women’s rugby than there has been at any other stage.
“The figures I have seen for the next year or two is enough to take the game in Wales forward.”
The 17-times capped former athlete, who competed at the 1984 Olympics, continued: “I like to think I know a little bit about a performance environment and what it takes to excel in elite sport.
“Some of those fundamentals are not there at the moment and we are addressing that.
“The talent pathway has holes in it at the moment.
“If you look at girls coming into the game, the numbers are pretty good.
“But once you get up to 16, 17, 18, the pathway is not where we would like it to be.
“Those areas need to be addressed.
“If you look at our top women, a number of them are playing in England.
“That, in itself, is not necessarily a problem, but what it does to the pathway in terms of girls being able to see a route through to playing international rugby, that’s why it presents a problem.
“It would be easy for me to say yes, we are going to fix that. But it’s not as straightforward as that. It needs a great deal of thought and there’s likely to be a transition period where you might go to one or two or three or four clubs over a period of time.
“It’s a difficult one, but we’ve got to get it right otherwise we are not going to perform to our potential at international level.”
Earlier this year, the WRU commissioned a review of the women’s “performance rugby strategy” in Wales.
“There are some tough statements in there, but all fair,” said Walker.
“We have started to address some of those things and at some stage in the future I will talk about those recommendations and about what we are going to do to implement them and put right some of the failings which have been identified.
“We will be open and transparent about the findings of the review.”
Wales have endured a troubled time with the women’s senior side over the last year or so.
In November 2020, former USA women’s assistant sevens coach Warren Abrahams was appointed as head coach, with former Wales captain Rachel Taylor taking on a role as full-time women’s national skills coach.
Taylor resigned before the Six Nations in March, while Abrahams left by mutual consent four months later after Wales finished bottom of the table.
Now a new interim coaching team has been put in place for the November Tests against Japan, South Africa and Canada, which will be staged at the Arms Park.
Ioan Cunningham and Geraint Lewis will be assisted by Richard Whiffin, while World Rugby coaching intern Sophie Spence remains in the set up.
“Obviously the results of the recent Six Nations were not what anybody wanted, but this is a fresh start with a young enthusiastic, ambitious interim coaching team,” said Walker.
“The search is underway for the head coach.
“We are going to take the three games in the autumn, we are going to learn and build from that.
“We will then move to the Six Nations and look towards the World Cup in New Zealand.
“It’s never easy to turn things around and it’s not easy to win at international level.
“But the resource is there, the commitment is there and the know-how is there. The ambition is there and we know where we want to be.
“We have to be as best prepared as we can be to meet the challenges the World Cup will throw at us.”
Walker added: “The most fundamental thing for me is making the squad of players feel loved, cherished and making them understand that we are as ambitious for the women’s game as they are.
“I think that’s where we start.
“We can’t afford to have a squad that loses faith in the governing body. We can’t have that.
“You need people coming into camp knowing they are going to get the level of resource they would expect, the quality of coaching they would expect, the science and medicine support they would expect and that we’ve got ambitions for the game in Wales.”
Walker was also quizzed about diversity and inclusion in Welsh rugby.
“It’s a topic which is being discussed regularly with a recognition that the game in Wales is not truly representative of the society that we live in,” he said.
So a final question. What’s it’s like to be facing the scrutiny of the Welsh media again?
“I am having the time of my life!” he quipped.
And with that he was off to his next meeting as he embarks on the latest challenge in his sporting life.
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