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'There's no conflict': New RPA chairman Ethan Waller on pandemic rugby, relegation, pizza, pay cuts and Michael Fatialofa

By Liam Heagney

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Worcester prop Ethan Waller quips he has never been so popular. After two years as the Warriors Rugby Players’ Association board representative, the 28-year-old has just been elected to succeed Mark Lambert as RPA chairman. He has large shoes to fill.

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In Lambert, the RPA had a poster boy figurehead. The ex-Harlequins prop nearly lost his career in 2005 before it ever really got going, problems while scrummaging eventually leading to the diagnosis that he had somehow dissected the anterior cerebral artery behind his left eye.

Career-ending surgery was required except it didn’t finish him off. He chanced a comeback and eventually only finished up at Harlequins last summer after more than 250 appearances for the club, a career story published by RugbyPass last July shortly before the game in England was about to come out of its lockdown-enforced hibernation.

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Jamie Roberts and Ryan Wilson on the latest RugbyPass Offload
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Jamie Roberts and Ryan Wilson on the latest RugbyPass Offload

Lambert was just the ticket to help the RPA through the pandemic, a mid-30s veteran who had seen and done it all. Now comes a new broom in the guise of the much younger Waller and while he doesn’t come with a jolting scare story similar to Lambert, the Worcester front row comes across as a level headed operator, an honest to goodness pro who has the well-being of his fellow pros at heart.

He has no idea yet how many man-hours his new role requires – he’s only in his first week in the job and suggests checking back in six months’ time to get confirmation of a figure. However, if he goes about being chairman in the same sort of effortless way he has embraced his time-consuming interests away from rugby over the years, the RPA will have elected very well.

It started with a family pub band back in 2006: Alex, his fellow front-rower brother at Northampton, on drums, Ethan on bass with dad out front. “We were your typical pub band. You’d sit down, have a pint and we’d be in the corner blasting out every old school rock tune you can think of and then every now and again we’d chuck in a new one.”

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In recent times Waller has been busy with securing financial qualifications through the Chartered Institute of Insurance and an Open University degree in maths and business. Then there are various business interests, including the Slice, Slice Baby mobile pizza company set up in 2018 with Alex, while plans to open a new sandwich/deli shop in Worcester are also nearing fruition for Waller.

“I don’t want to belittle anyone’s situation in the pandemic, but my personal development in that time was accelerated and the pizza business ended up going through the roof. We had all our summer events cancelled but we improvised, started doing pizza packs you could do in any home kitchen. It surpassed the revenue we were going to take in from summer events,” he enthused.

This work ethic was embraced from a very young age, Waller not knowing at the time whether he had the ability to make it in rugby. Even when he did breakthrough at Northampton, it was a battle to become a regular starter with brother Alex and numerous others ahead in the queue and Waller eventually took himself off to Worcester in 2017 to become exactly that, a more frequent No1 on the team sheet.

“Coming in as an academy player having your brother there was brilliant because he would show me the ropes, talking about unspoken stuff, the way you conduct yourself, the way you have got to be around the place, how you are as a person. Having him there was really useful because he moulded me… but in my final two years at Saints, I was at a point where I felt I needed to kick on. I was looking at what Alex had achieved at my age (a match-winning Premiership final try-scorer and an England squad call-up at 24 in 2014).

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“At the beginning of my career I was initially on trial for a year so in my head, I always thought you’re going to need a back-up plan and that is something that has followed me through my career. It has been a mindset that has been pretty stuck in and I’m very aware that rugby careers can be short.

“I have a few good friends whose careers have been cut short so for me, it was always a case of making sure something is there because as great a game as rugby is, it can be quite fragile. All it takes is one moment getting injured and that can be you.”

There were criticisms of the RPA when the s*** hit the fan last March and the game was shuttered in England. They were accused of not being independent enough from the RFU and the Premiership Rugby to truly act in its members’ best interests, a situation that saw Ellis Genge attempt to set-up his Rugby Players Epoch union which he shelved in June, while there were also barbs over how club owners were able to revise player contracts, resulting in the game restarting in August with a reduced wage bill.

Waller, though, insists the RPA did well managing the pandemic. “Like most institutions, Covid has highlighted strengths and weaknesses in every business. I can’t speak highly enough about all the work that went on at the RPA. It was outstanding in what was probably one of the strangest twelve-month periods the RPA has ever seen.

“A pretty common misconception was how the RPA received funding for the RFU and Prem Rugby. All player associations do receive investment from the sport they operate in but the RFU and Premiership investment goes through to the Gainline programme (personal development enterprises away from rugby) and the welfare initiatives which is the extracurricular side of things, they are making sure all the players are looked after.

“All the RPA trade union activity is funded by the RPA and the commercial partners so on that side of things we are all independent of our stakeholders [the RFU and Premiership Rugby]. That conflict was wrongly seen, through no fault of anyone really but that has hopefully been cleared up now. There is no conflict when it comes to those trade union activities.”

As for the salary cuts, Waller can only speak from a Worcester perspective. “I have learned a lot the last twelve months, especially in terms of being a lot closer in communications with our owners at Worcester about how we sorted out everything during the pandemic and seeing how it was run behind the scenes.

 

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“There were elements of stress that went with it when you were facing such uncertainty at the time. When you think back now it was only a few months but at the time we didn’t know what was happening and the owners didn’t know where money was coming in for clubs.

“It was stressful but in those situations, you have got to be able to keep a level head and see things from both sides because there is a lot of emotion involved. One of the best things I was told about negotiation was a good negotiation is something that leaves both sides feeling some level of discomfort because then you know everything has been done well. It’s taught me a lot and if you can get through a pandemic you are in pretty good stead going forward.

“Everyone took cuts so we could keep the game going. It’s the game we love and it’s the game we want to see be at its best. No one would have liked to have seen rugby racing downhill on the back of a few decisions. The vast majority of people you speak to will have done everything they could to keep us playing the game we love going forward.”

Waller believes rugby as a sport has generally been a good citizen during the pandemic. The Worcester game this weekend against Newcastle was cancelled due to an outbreak at Falcons but Waller would rather this than take risks that reflect badly on the game.

“It has been a challenge. Clearly, the first few months of the pandemic was a period of uncertainty and insecurity but what was fantastic was as soon as we sorted out dates for a return, the best thing was the safeguarding that was put in. Rules have been changed in the Premiership regarding Covid and safety has been the biggest paramount.

“Ask anyone around the Premiership. I feel safer going to work than I do going into the supermarket to do my shopping. You know when you go to work that everyone is tested, the entire place is being deep cleaned constantly and there are certain minimum standards that every single club has to adhere to.

“The cases have been kept to an absolute minimum to none for games to be played and if there is any risk of an outbreak, places get locked down and games get cancelled because safety is by far the biggest priority. Of course, it is frustrating when games get cancelled but when you look at the grand scheme of safety in the pandemic we are still playing the game we love, we’re still doing our job day in and day out. Rugby has handled it very well.”

Waller has quickly got to work with his RPA hat on. Already, new diversity/inclusion and welfare advisory boards have been set-up, while the ramifications of now having no relegation in this season’s Premiership are a talking point. “One of the high priorities is ensuring the structure of the league next year is one that is amicable for both sides. The RPA will be involved in that and we can hopefully make that safe for players in terms of rest weeks and we get the best spectacle we can as a league.”

Worcester were in the thick of it before the February 12 vote to scrap the drop but Waller insists this threat of demotion wasn’t a talking point in the Sixways dressing room. “We didn’t address it. We have stayed in the fight and no one can question our fight but there have been a few decisive moments in games.

“We knew if we cut that out we would hopefully climb up the table anyway. The relegation chat was never thrown around really whatsoever. I don’t think we addressed it because we were confident that things were going to click and when they did we would find our way up that table pretty comfortably.”

That progress was hoped for minus Michael Fatialofa, the 28-year-old who was left paralysed in January 2020 before fighting a courageous fight where he is now walking again and living back in his native New Zealand. His name cropped up again earlier this month, Fatialofa taking to Twitter to voice concerns about unpaid medical bills.

“Rugby is one of the better sports at communication in general but there are always mistakes that get made every now and again and that situation is supposed to be getting resolved. That would be good for everyone involved,” stressed Waller on a serious injury that hit Worcester hard.

“It was a very tough time for us as a club but it was nowhere near as tough what Fats was going through. He has the support of all of us here. I remember I didn’t play that game (at Saracens) but I watched it on TV and I was going crazy with what was going on. When we got the news of what had happened, it was a case of everyone rallying around Fats, what we could do to help support him get through it. Lads visited him regularly.

“He came in for rehab when we first came back after the lockdown and he has actually gone back to New Zealand since then. He is back there where it is far more free as far as I am aware. It’s probably a much better place for him to be to get back to as normal a lifestyle as possible. Boys still keep in touch with him. Social media is a great thing for staying in touch.”

What’s the legacy, though, in the Worcester dressing room from the Fatialofa incident for Waller and co? “Rugby is a very fragile sport and the chances of injury are high just because of the nature of the game but the moment you start fearing that is going to happen to you in every game, in my experience that is when those things start to happen.

“It’s a thing while you have got to learn from it, you have got to be smart about it, you can’t sit and live in fear. Life is too short for that so the best thing we could have done was support Fats in every single way possible – which we did and will continue to do – and then the best thing we could have done on the pitch was just perform for him.”

Waller Northampton
Ethan Waller celebrates a try for Northampton in 2014 against Leicester (Photo by David Rogers/Getty Images)

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'There's no conflict': New RPA chairman Ethan Waller on pandemic rugby, relegation, pizza, pay cuts and Michael Fatialofa

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