What are they fighting for?

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A normal Welsh rugby civil war takes 6 to 9 months to play out. We saw this in 1996, we saw it in 1999 (when it took a little longer) and we saw it again in 2002-3. The Union lost the first one (who controled the players when professional rugby started) but won the next two (the crazy decision to block an Anglo-Welsh league and an equally crazy decision to go “Regional”). Are they on for a hat trick?

I’d say so. Roger Lewis has the cards stacked heavily in his favour: the media won’t rock the boat with the WRU so the tone of the reporting of the present issues is weighted, the Participation Agreement ends next year but it can, at the wish of the four pro teams, roll over until 2019 which means that they will be skint until that point before he’ll try to close them again.

In return, the Pro teams (let’s forget calling them “regions” as they may not even carry that brand for much longer) have the players and a link to the English clubs. Back in 2002-3, we saw the Unity that club owners will show when the French and the English backed the Rebel Season and backed the “placing” of Cardiff and Swansea into the HEC once they were allowed to play in Wales again (it’s often thought that they turned their back on Welsh rugby during that year but that’s another Welsh rugby myth. They refused to sign the Loyalty Agreement, wanted to play their fixture list in Wales with “second teams” but were thrown out of the competition by the WRU. Only at S4C’s insistance were they allowed to play in the Cup. So this is just a nice example of how the WRU has always controlled the Welsh press).

Lewis has gone public with his desire to fully control the professional game in Wales. He has blocked the attempts of the pro teams to generate their own income, he has misled the Welsh public on how the finances work in the game (and has had the press on his side to do this, bar one Week In, Week Out BBC Wales TV show) and he has the Golden Goose of the sparkly Cowboy hat wearers willing to pay £70 to shout “Give it to Shane” whilst the bloke in the row in front goes for another beer at the Millennium Stadium.

So, in fairness to Lewis and in his defence, we know what he wants. And it’s pretty clear on how he is going about getting it – starving the pro teams of income so that they are financially struggling and entering a downward spiral akin to what we have seen at Newport Gwent Dragons since 2004. I say good on Mr Lewis, if that’s what he wants and that is what he is employed to deliver. I think that he is killing the game in doing so but he’s only doing his job.

But what about the other lot, what are they fighting for? Does anybody know? What do they want as an end game? We’ve seen snippets in the press from Hore, we’ve had Gallacher commenting on talks about working with PRL. But is that it?

The four have a representative body called Regional Rugby Wales – RRW. This body has no website, has only Gallacher as a spokesperson and is clearly not on the front foot in telling the supporters of the four teams what the hell is going on. This is, for me, more unprofessional than telling PWC to bog off when they asked for a business plan.

Now is the time for RRW to tell us what they want, how they are going to get it and just what benefits that will bring for Welsh rugby. They need a full time spokesperson, full time staff and a bloody good marketing campaign that some will get behind it. At the moment there is a huge anti-WRU stance but it is impossible to be pro-RRW as they won’t tell us that they are fighting for.

It is not beyond the wit of those involved, or their resources, to employ a strategist to lead the organisation. If they choose wisely then a recently retired ex-international with good media skills could win RRW a lot of friends and with friends comes influence. That man, call him Gethin Rhys Williams (for example), needs to be on the television every day informing us of what is going on.

That man needs to be in videos on their website telling us what RRW wants, what they stand for, what benefits it will bring and how they will get it. Even Valleys Rugby managed to do that little.

There is a huge car crash in European rugby just 12 months away as the HEC ends, or at least potentially ends. It could be civil war time but the English and French clubs have already got their message sorted and have already got their supporters on side.

In Wales, we have a carpet salesman up against the National Media. How bloody villagist.

Our Friends to the East – danger approaches

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A Danger To Newport RFC

Whilst it would be true that most Newport RFC supporters are unhappy with how events for their club have unfolded since 2003, it could be that even worse is on the way for them. Rightly so, many of them are upset at the Board (especially Tony Brown) for not fighting hard enough for standalone status in 2003 and for the shambles of the administration of the “Gwent Dragons”, before the birth of this barely wanted step child of the Newport Gwent Dragons.

It shouldn’t be discounted or ignored that many pre-2003 Newport followers have given the NGD a fair crack over the last decade and seen that team as “their own”. The attendance figures would suggest that this number have declined during the last decade and are yet to be replaced by new followers.

The emaciation of the Newport RFC brand and the very poor standard of 2ndTeam, Development rugby in the Welsh Premiership has naturally led to many just walking away completely from watching live rugby. When your “club” is a farm team for the step child you don’t want then not only does that lead to a backwards set up but also to bad feeling. In other words, you’ve lost “both” of your teams whilst (in theory – ha ha) your rivals have kept their team and gained another.

The answer from those non-Newport club followers in Gwent is that their clubs signed away forever their chance to sit at the top table of professional rugby in favour of this new regional set up. We all had to sacrifice and all Newport had to sacrifice is half of their club. This viewpoint, of course, is complete nonsense. It’s akin to the Pub Drunk claiming that he sacrificed his shot at Amir Khan when he tucked into his after closing time pizza. In other words: it’s easy to sacrifice something that you never had and never had an opportunity to ever have.

So for 10 years this not-quite Newport but too-Newport “regional team” have bounced along the bottom of Welsh professional rugby, taking its money from the professional game and not delivering that much in return. There have been success stories in Dan Lydiate and the Filton Academy produced Toby Faletau, but gone are the days when Newport (pumped by Tony Brown’s cash) were a threat to the top of the Welsh game.

So there we have the two edges of the sword that presently hangs over the head of Newport RFC – it needed Tony Brown’s cash to survive in the professional game and it is his ownership of the club (through being by far the biggest shareholder) that has led to them to the mess they are presently in. Can’t live with him, can’t live without him.

Yet the latest rumour mill suggests that his action in allowing a 50% partner in the Newport Gwent Dragons (presently held by the WRU after Ebbw Vale failed in their duty) could really harm and remove professional rugby from Newport forever as Roger Lewis is on the warpath and he wants to buy Newport RFC’s shareholding in order to gain 100% Union control of the NGD.

Now some Newport RFC followers may think that ridding their club of the step child would be a fantastic solution in allowing them to direct their club for its own benefit in the future. It would be back to being Newport RFC, a proud team and not a farm team.

This thought pattern, however, is the biggest danger to Newport RFC as it is simply nonsense. All clubs within the Welsh Premiership now have to sign a Participation Agreement with their “region” in order to promise to be a good little farm club. So Newport RFC would still be in exactly the same position it is now but without access to control over a professional entity.

Worse still, that “region” for whom it must behave itself may not actually be “Gwent”. The WRU has history of buying a club’s share of a region, promising to keep it going as a 100% Union owned team and them immediately shutting it down. Just ask followers of Ever 2033 Ltd, or the Celtic Warriors as some would remember them. That little incident cost the WRU a few quid but, in the long run, I’m sure that they would think it money well spent.

So it could be that selling up to the WRU makes Newport RFC a farm club for a new entity (maybe a development side involving North Wales and the South East Wales Valleys) or, and this would be a killer blow, if the WRU wanted only three professional teams then Newport RFC would be a farm club for…… Cardiff. And what a total joke that would be.

This all means that now is the time for Newport RFC supporters to wake from their decade of Dragons induced slumber and finally grab hold of their club. They simply have to fight for its future by campaigning to buy the WRU’s share of the Newport Gwent Dragons and becoming a proper standalone. After all, if it’s good enough for Roger Lewis then surely it’s good enough for Newport RFC?

The pressure has to come on to fight for all that top flight rugby in Newport stands for and stood for. There will be no second chances if Brown sells to Lewis.

This clearly would be an enormous task for Newport RFC supporters to start, let alone coordinate and control, but the mechanisms may already be in place in the model of Friends of Newport Rugby – the Supporters’ Trust.  This is the best vehicle available for all of the shareholders of Newport RFC to bind together to buy out Brown in order to at least save that 50% ownership of professional rugby, before taking on the WRU’s share.

Brown must be approached, must be canvassed and must be made aware of the weight of opinion that would be against selling up to the WRU. There is form for doing this when you consider the organisation of the Petition in 2003 for representation of the Newport name in the professional team and this kind of effort must be seen to be reproduced.

Sure, it’s possibly an enormous task dependent upon the will of Tony Brown and how the debt sits for the refurbishment of the new stadium, but the ability is there amongst Newport RFC followers (it is definitely there in the Trust) to win the finance to fight for professional rugby in Newport.

Somebody needs to fight for Newport. It’s time for those who care about the club to lead that fight.

So where next?

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If the PRGB is dead in the water, then what do the four (RRW?) do next? Sit by and wait for Roger to come up with another dead duck or, at last, actually kick back at the WRU. They must have surely realised that they will never be successful whilst playing second fiddle to the Union’s team and having to baby sit a tier of amatuer clubs beneath them.

Lewis has shown his hand – he wants to control everything in Welsh rugby and has set out his stall to do it. He wants to take over the four professional teams, he wants the WP clubs to be handcuffed to a region two by two and he wants all rugby below that level to be completely amateur with no payments at all for playing.

So which of the 240 or so clubs is happy with that set up? Proud clubs like Pontypridd and Neath become nothing other than farm clubs for Union gerrymandered entities with daft sounding names associated so some collection of Post Codes. Equally proud clubs like Pontypool, Newbridge, Glamorgan Wanderers and Ebbw Vale are pretty much doomed to playing village clubs for the rest of their time, with no prospect of stepping up to the higher levels.

Furthermore, this view of Lewis’ will kill any private finance link to the game at any level. The professional game will be a Union closed shop so who will want to sponsor that or provide additional funding? The independence of the WP clubs dies, so what is their point? They are no longer centres of their community but become play things for Union regions. Their existing WP Participation Agreement is already handcuffing them to that role.

Lewis’ vision for the game in Wales will kill it. It removes everything that is great about Welsh rugby: rivalry, independence and striving to beat those teams around you. It makes it one plastic mass of a supposed pyramid that will remove interest at any kind of level.

Any if the Golden Goose of the national team fails then what is left within this pyramid? Nothing. The interest of the volunteer, private backer and supporter is already waning as they understand that what they are interested in no longer matters, no longer has a role to play other than being a plaything of the next level up. That kind of interest is being removed from the game and it cannot be immediately brought back once Lewis goes.

We have only two hopes: the first that the four professional teams wake up to their issues and seek a future away from Lewis’ control, either through an expanded Anglo-Welsh competition or through the more likely route of working with the junior clubs to force the EGM to rid the WRU of Roger Lewis.

So where next?

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If the PRGB is dead in the water, then what do the four (RRW?) do next? Sit by and wait for Roger to come up with another dead duck or, at last, actually kick back at the WRU. They must have surely realised that they will never be successful whilst playing second fiddle to the Union’s team and having to baby sit a tier of amatuer clubs beneath them. Lewis has shown his hand – he wants to control everything in Welsh rugby and has set out his stall to do it. He wants to take over the four professional teams, he wants the WP clubs to be handcuffed to a region two by two and he wants all rugby below that level to be completely amateur with no payments at all for playing. So which of the 240 or so clubs is happy with that set up? Proud clubs like Pontypridd and Neath become nothing other than farm clubs for Union gerrymandered entities with daft sounding names associated so some collection of Post Codes. Equally proud clubs like Pontypool, Newbridge, Glamorgan Wanderers and Ebbw Vale are pretty much doomed to playing village clubs for the rest of their time, with no prospect of stepping up to the higher levels. Furthermore, this view of Lewis’ will kill any private finance link to the game at any level. The professional game will be a Union closed shop so who will want to sponsor that or provide additional funding? The independence of the WP clubs dies, so what is their point? They are no longer centres of their community but become play things for Union regions. Their existing WP Participation Agreement is already handcuffing them to that role. Lewis’ vision for the game in Wales will kill it. It removes everything that is great about Welsh rugby: rivalry, independence and striving to beat those teams around you. It makes it one plastic mass of a supposed pyramid that will remove interest at any kind of level. Any if the Golden Goose of the national team fails then what is left within this pyramid? Nothing. The interest of the volunteer, private backer and supporter is already waning as they understand that what they are interested in no longer matters, no longer has a role to play other than being a plaything of the next level up. That kind of interest is being removed from the game and it cannot be immediately brought back once Lewis goes. We have only two hopes: the first that the four professional teams wake up to their issues and seek a future away from Lewis’ control, either through an expanded Anglo-Welsh competition or through the more likely route of working with the junior clubs to force the EGM to rid the WRU of Roger Lewis.

PRGB = BS = WTF? = Doomed

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My friend, Roger Lewis, is seemingly keen on testing which nuclear option will be taken first in Welsh rugby – either the club owners throw their collective toys and walk away, leaving him to march through empty streets with his Team Wales army behind him, or they finally get some togetherness and go their own way with the English.

http://www.bbc.co.uk/sport/0/rugby-union/20836386

It seems that the PRGB lasted only a meeting or two before the WRU withdrew, moaning that unless it set the agenda then its four representatives wouldn’t show. And, of course, off the agenda would be any idea of the WRU actually paying a fair share for player access….

So, what will the four do for themselves? Rumours are that they will seek an extended Anglo-Welsh competition to replace the seemingly dead in the water HEC from 2014-15. The English seem open to this option so if something can be worked out then we will have a very interesting time.

Why? Well, in 2014 the existing Participation Agreement between the WRU and the four will end. It is only at the request of the four that it can be automatically rolled on until 2019. But the value in doing that is the £6m or so per year that the WRU pay on top of the £9m generated by the competitions the four play in. If the HEC goes then so does its money, losing the game c.£5m in Wales.

I wonder if the four can find their own income streams, through a proper AW Competition, to make up any shortfall. Lewis must be hoping that they cannot, so that he can have his moment, a la The Dictator on his camel through New York.

Why the u23s? Why not the WP?

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Top u23 players who are outside of the first team squad often drop back in to the WP when not required. The drop in quality is too great. The diversity of coaching and approach, combined with the issues of not training with the WP team, all on top of the disruption caused to the WP team, means that an u23 team would best suit the needs of all.

The WP needs to be independent to be strong. There are players like Thomas Young, Cory Hill, Matthew Screech or whoever, not kicking on because they are not good enough for the first team but too good for the WP.

More than the English?

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£102m over 8 years is what the English see as a payment for International Players outside of the IRB window. For the WRU, that value is (at present) £54m.

See the difference? It’s stark. Same product to sell (international rugby) but a different price.

Look at what the RFU pay for:http://www.telegraph.co.uk/sport/rugbyunion/international/england/2325851/RFU-and-Premier-Rugby-announce-new-deal.html

Look at what the WRU pay for: http://www.wru.co.uk/eng/news/8688.php

Anybody want to spot the difference? The fact that PRL serves 12 clubs and RRW serves 4 is utterly irrelevant to what the Unions are paying for.

What to do with Valleys Rugby?

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The vocal minority of wolves in Ponty clothing have gone a little silent since Nigel Greenaway launched a new business venture and Owen Smith got a proper job, but their followers still need to be fed a bone.

For me, the obvious thing that they should look to do is to enter the English County Championship tournament, which seems to be played in May each year – just for a month.

What better place for them to prove their collective worth and for them to sell out Sardis Road’s huge corporate and retail capacity for a few home “Ole, Ole, Ole, Ole, Ole, VaR-lees, VaR-lees” games a season? That’ll prove something to Roger Lewis, I’m sure.

What to do, Roger?

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What to do, Roger?

The professional game is at a crossroads in this country as Roger Lewis’ own policies are beginning to bite him on the backside. For years he has underpaid for the access Team Wales (his team) have to the assets of the four professional teams and this slow starvation has caused them to be unable to offer the wages players can command in the European market. He compounded that starvation with an insistance on employment of Welsh qualified players, regardless of their ability or likelihood to play for Team Wales. This insistance increased wages as the talent pool meant a shortage of supply and a seller’s market.

Whilst doing this, Roger saturated the fixture list with Team Wales fixtures to the point where these games were in competition with the four teams which supplied the bulk of the players. Despite the WRU being shareholders in the Celtic League, we still had inter-Region games on weekends Team Wales were playing. Despite the WRU being shareholders in ERC, Lewis still drew up a fixture list for Team Wales that prevented the four from having six weeks worth of access to their players before Rounds 3 and 4 of the ERC competitions.

On top of this, he now has to lower ticket prices in order to get bums on seats to watch the Golden Goose.

And yet some still wonder why the four aren’t as good as is the expectation of them!

It’s obviously possible to write in real depth on this subject so I’ve tried to condense my thoughts into a few bullet points:

  • WRU contribution up to £8m pa from £6m pa. This is a long way from the RFU’s payment of a minimum of £102m over 8 years, but it’s a start. This payment would lead to guaranteed access for 20 weeks per annum – 6 weeks Autumn, 8 weeks 6N, 6 weeks Summer Tour, plus the maintenance of existing access for player training, fitness and medical tests
  •  The present £9.1m earned through competition and broadcast revenues should continue to be shared equally amongst the four but the payment of £8m must be made by player supply to Team Wales.
  • £7m to be paid for the top 35 players named by the Team Wales Head Coach on August 1st (after Summer Tour) = £200k each
  • £1m for 40 top players at u20 level = £25k each
  •  Players not playing in Wales see their £200k put into a reserve pot
  • Each player outside of top 35 who is called up earns his club £10k a week (which also provides an incentive to promote from u20 level to senior squad) at senior level
  • Any surplus at end of the Summer Tour (i.e. before the next year’s squad is announced) is split four equal ways
  •  From 2014-15, no player playing outside of Wales will play for Wales unless in existing contract
  •  Minimum wage spend per squad is £500k on top of Competition & WRU money for top 38 ERC registered players for year after, to be heavily audited
  • No one player can earn more than 15% of total salary spend
  •  NWQ limit to be 8 players including time servers in registered squad of 38 players
  •  All four “encouraged” to open up a percentage of the business to be supporter owned through Supporters’ Trusts. A minimum of 5% and one board seat to be in place by 2015.
  •  Coaching positions should be the choice of the four with encouragement for at least one member of the coaching team to have coached in a different league. This will encourage ideas to come into the system from outside, rather than becoming stale and insular.

 On top of all of that, I’d look to put into place an U23 competition for only Welsh qualified players, played on a home and away basis with the top two entering into a Grand Final. This would look to provide something of a stepping stone after u20 international rugby.

  • Will guarantee 6 u23 games per season, to be played outside of the IRB windows (possibly HEC group game weekends to ensure BBC coverage on TV)
  • Should be a highlight / showpiece for best u23 players not playing in HEC
  • Two over 23 players allowed per match day squad
  • Aim to play FIRA National teams on designated weekends as Wales u23 v Spain, or Portugal etc.
  •  Aim to play other Pro 12 and / or AP “A” teams on additional weekends outside of IRB window
  •  Aim for 12 u23 fixtures per season with, in effect, the u23 team entering the LV= Cup

All of which involves the top end of the tree and rather ignores the roots. So:

Welsh Premiership & BIC

  •  WP should be cut to 8 teams and all to play in the BIC
  • Newport, Swansea, Llanelli and Cardiff should step out of WP and concentrate on u23 rugby
  • WP should be based on promotion / relegation of best 8 semi pro teams in Wales, regardless of geography
  • “Regional PA” should be scrapped in favour of individual loan deals with WP clubs when u23 players become available / return from injury
  • 4 pro teams should be focussed on developing players within their own system from 16 to first team through pathway of representative rugby and allow clubs their independence
  • There should be no “developmental” responsibility or pressure on WP clubs. They should simply aim to be the best they can.
  • Strict audit function put in place to ensure that books balance, including wage cap at 65% of turnover (promised turnover, excluding any WRU payment) or £650k (whichever is greater)
  • WRU grants of up to £75k available per team to be spent on infrastructure only and not wages (including travel, training facilities, hospitality facilities to become centre of local community etc)
  • Clubs must be encouraged to own their own ground and be community owned
  • A WRU gift of £50k per annum can be spent on player wages.
  • Any u20 players not involved in the u23 rugby should play WP rugby with wages covered by the four on Academy terms (a set wage agreed across all four for parity reasons) at teams best suited to their circumstances (geography, coaching, positional requirement, availability). Host WP team pays nothing, so owning club also covers WP club standard win bonus / appearance fee.
  • In the BIC, the Irish teams will be encouraged to remove their A teams and play top club sides by offering fixtures of their A teams versus Welsh four u23 teams

The removal of the handcuffs of “regional responsibility” on the WP teams and the enforcement of their independence leads to the thought of “what happens with regionalism”? Well, here goes:

Regional Responsibility

The main responsibility must be the growth of the game at u18 and schools level, in order to create the conveyor belt into recreational, club and professional rugby. This must be in partnership with the WRU as the game itself benefits more than will the four professional teams.

  •  Ratio: 1 Development Officer per x schools and clubs? Equal funded?
  •  Monthly coaching master classes to be run to train the coaches of junior clubs within the region
  •  Regional Clubs Liaison Officer to be a standard employee for each of the four, to work on closer links to assist with coaching development, junior rugby and grant applications for infrastructure
  •  Players encouraged to take coaching badges and work with clubs at age grade level and senior level.

Conclusion:

That’s a lot to take in but I think that it is a blueprint which could work, and should offer more than just a basic document for discussion purposes. The funding model is designed to reward the professional teams who develop talent for the international game AND is designed to reward the amateur clubs who become the hub of their communities. Those are the key aims for both games.

There is enough in the finance model for the pro game to provide strong HEC teams, especially when you think that all of those Team Wales player bonus payments won’t be made available to those not playing in Wales. A player can earn tens of thousands per season playing for Wales, meaning that the more lucrative contract outside of Wales is just that little bit less lucrative……

How the Other Half Live

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Not only is the weather better, but so is the rugby set up. A swish (if small) club shop in the local Shopping Centre backs on to the Club’s Restaurant / Cafe that seems pretty busy. The home support are nigh on all decked out in Club Colours, be that a scarf, a big thick coat (despite it being pretty warm in January) or a Jonny Wilkinson prayer mat.

How can Peter Thomas fail to miss all of that? How can he fail to see that Toulon have taken the model of professional rugby and sold it brilliantly to a local market? He should spend less time inviting ex-Cardiff players to his hotel room to offer them derisory contracts and spend more time working out how to copy the Toulon model.

On the pitch it was, sadly, men versus boys. The home team don’t seem to have kicked on in quality since the Amlin win but the away team have sunk to an embarrassing level of woeful play. Whilst individual skill levels remain high and Owen Williams, in particular, shone for his disciplined and talented peformance, the collective play and lack of leadership from so called senior players just underlined the gap in quality.

Against a team of hard nosed, physical players (despite missing Sheridan, Botha and the aforementioned Jenkins), the ballerinas in the Cardiff pack were out of their depth. Phil Davies’ idea of getting them to run about quickly is completely pointless when they are constantly battered at the gain line. To beat Cardiff is easy – kick, clap, pressure and pick and drive. The gaps in the defensive line then appear as quickly as Jamie Roberts running away from his defensive duties. Whilst players like Copeland look pretty with the ball in hand and Navidi tries his hardest, a pack containing such relatively physically weak players has no place even on the second table of HEC rugby. You cannot beat the top teams without a physical pack.

The inevitability of the result was so depressing but not as depressing as the capitulation just after half time. The defensive discipline went, the collective play fell apart and tackles were half hearted. Obviously there was some kind of motivation coming from Davies at half time…… Maybe the result in Munster has more to do with him staying at home than anything else.

Amongst the gloom were some rays of sunshine. Whilst not having any idea of game control, Lewis Jones had his best game in a Cardiff shirt and Patchell was Patchell. Two kids at half back who have lots of talent but no idea how to run a game. They need to be taken off the training field for a fortnight and forced to watch non-stop videos of Holmes and Davies so that they learn when to take the drop goal they should have gone for in the first half….. As mentioned, Williams played very well but, sadly, took his positional lead from Roberts – who must surely have been left in France as that clearly is where his heart is.

The shining light, however, was Halfpenny. He was cruelly exposed by a bouncing ball that Wilkinson was clearly controlling from afar, but that was the only blight on a faultless performance of skill, courage and tenacity. Sadly, way too many of his colleagues lack one, or all, of those qualities.

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