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Rugby Union: Wales says goodbye to Grand Slam hero; But visionary Moffett leaves a legacy at the WRU.

Byline: By CARSON WISHART

IN the bowels of the Millennium Stadium last night, Wales perhaps lost its greatest Grand Slam hero.

David Moffett's resignation as WRU group chief executive was as unexpected as it was unwelcome. As the union embarks on its 125th anniversary season, complete with record profits and a national team basking in its Six Nations glory, the country has lost a great rugby visionary.

Three years ago, the Kiwi arrived with Welsh rugby deep in turmoil. Crippling pounds 60m debts, a legacy of building the magnificent Millennium Stadium, bitter infighting within the crumbling club scene and a national team falling pitifully short of huge expectation.

As WRU chairman David Pickering so bluntly put it last night: "Wales was a basketcase."

Enter David Moffett, a little-known New Zealander from the business world who rolled up his sleeves and, quite simply, turned it all around.

But, as is tradition in Welsh rugby, the knives were out before he had even begun with attacks coming from certain quarters unhappy with his "huge" pounds 200,000 a year salary.

"I'm worth every penny," declared Moffett in defiance and so he proved it.

Firstly, he understood the WRU had to reduce its huge debt before success could began in earnest on the pitch. After fears that Wales' crown jewel, the Millennium Stadium, could be sold off to wipe away the debt, Moffett implemented a restructuring plan with major investor banks.

Suddenly, the picture looked decidedly brighter on the financial front, culminating in the WRU making a pounds 3.5m last year - an almost unthinkable prospect before Moffett arrived.

He understood that success had to come from the top and that Wales needed a club structure that served the national team.

So, after just a year in charge, came the most radical of radical overhauls seen in Welsh rugby's long and distinguished history.

Five super regions were touted as the future of the game with players centrally contracted to the union.

At first, the response was predictably hostile as clubs scrambled for their very existence while others lined up to dig deep into the WRU funding pot.

The concept was foreign in all respects to some, but Moffett knew that five regional teams would provide a pivotal platform for the national team.

So, and some thought ominously at the time, April 1 2003 was the day the Celtic Warriors, the Newport-based Dragons, Cardiff Blues, Ospreys and Llanelli Scarlets all came into being.

Backed by a go-ahead union, they were given a mandate to all fly the Welsh flag in Celtic League and Heineken Cup competitions. No one doubted that such a speedy overhaul of the club structure in Wales would be a high-risk strategy and so it proved.

The major blot on Moffett's copy book came last year when the Warriors fell by the wayside with crippling debts.

After Pontypridd bailed out, the WRU first bought the remaining shares in the region but declared it bankrupt just weeks later and the Warriors wound down.

It was a calculated risk assessment with Moffett running the gauntlet with the heartland Valleys rugby community who had lost their representation overnight.

But Moffett stood tall, simply declaring there was not enough cash around at the time.

"I've got no regrets in anything that I've done," said Moffett last night. "Sometimes people will not agree with everything you do, it comes with the job.

"I have done a good as job as I can and I will leave it up to others to judge me."

He may never be forgiven in the Valleys but, with time, other sceptics subsided and the all-new Celtic League took hold with the mouth-watering prospect of the Irish provinces coming to town. Supporters soon took the new sides to their hearts and, as set out in the blueprint, from them emerged the new princes of Wales such as Gavin Henson, Ryan Jones and Dwayne Peel.

After Steve Hansen's departure, came the appointment of Mike Ruddock last March - another masterstroke by Moffett.

Again the traditionalists called for the safe hands of the Scarlets' Gareth Jenkins to take charge but Moffett plumped for a complete outsider in Ruddock who had so admirably cut his cloth at Leinster, Ebbw Vale and Gwent Dragons, but was not regarded by some as national material.

It proved to be a hugely significant appointment too as Ruddock, backed by a now largely unified body, brought to fruition Moffett's vision for Welsh rugby to where it really mattered most - on the pitch.

After years of being the butt of Englishmen's jokes, Wales emerged from the wilderness to end a 27-year-old Grand Slam drought on March 19 with that famous 32-10 victory over Ireland at a packed Millennium Stadium.

It was the culmination of a job well done from a honorary Welshman who simply got every minute detail right off the pitch, so the nation's heroes could perform to the highest possible standard on it.

You could say, Moffett was Wales' 16th man on that glorious day in Cardiff

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Welsh rugby players celebrate their historic Grand Slam last year, which many believe was helped by David Moffett's revolutionary ideas behind the scenes
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Title Annotation:Sport
Publication:Daily Post (Liverpool, England)
Date:Sep 30, 2005
Words:862
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