A just triumph of Will over power

Chris Rea says the RFU have surrendered the high ground to the players
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The Independent Online
AS DAMAGE limitation exercises go, Dennis Easby's rapprochement with Will Carling was reasonably painless. But given the scale of the initial damage, the whole affair has been nothing short of calamitous. The problem with self- importance is that it renders one oblivious to the importance of everything else, although it is hard to believe that the six officers of the Rugby Football Union whose decision it was to sack England's captain could not have foreseen the consequences of their action.

Even now there is confusion over what exactly that decision was, with at least two members of the committee seeking to distance themselves from their colleagues. The sight and sound of the venerable members scrambling for the lifeboats has further tarnished the image of England's governing body. It has been in complete contrast to the calm and mature approach of the players following their understandably outraged response last weekend.

Where the RFU have fired before the command, panicked in the face of attack and fled in glorious retreat, the players have held their nerve. Tactically, the other ranks have run rings around the commanders and in their moment of victory have displayed admirable dignity and humility. It is the players, not the administrators, who have shown themselves to be officer material and whoever it is who is advising them should immediately be hired at headquarters. This has been the biggest public relations cock- up since Herod's plans for a nursery school.

So much of what the RFU have achieved recently has been buried under the debris. Even if many of the committee are now well advanced into old fogeydom, the majority are men of integrity, wisdom and, believe it or not, foresight. Carling and his team would not now be enjoying their present success, without parallel in England's history, were it not for the fact that the game's domestic structure has been constructed on solid foundations. That is not the work of the players but the administrators.

Twickenham is now one of the finest sports stadiums in the world, a monument to the present prosperity of the game. Furthermore, the younger, more enlightened, members of the committee, have been diligently working to reach a satisfactory accommodation with the players on financial remuneration. Unfortunately, the majority view on the committee has not always been accurately reflected or represented.

Which comes back to public relations and how the RFU are perceived by the world at large. After last weekend's shambles, there can be no doubt, although Joe Public probably didn't need Carling to remind them. One of the first jobs for Tony Hallett, the in-coming secretary, should therefore be the establishment of a professional PR department at Twickenham.

The extent of the repair work confronting Hallett when he succeeds Dudley Wood in July can be gauged from the fact that the rugby community will not quickly forgive the RFU for the events of the last week and even if England were to win the World Cup in South Africa next month, it would be despite and not because of the ruling body.

No one has done more to improve relations between the RFU and the media than Dudley Wood. The monthly press conferences at Twickenham are shining examples of how such briefings should be conducted. By his relaxed manner and lively wit he has won over even the hardest of the game's cynics, although he has occasionally set himself up as an all-too-easy target for those self-appointed guardians of truth and fair play who profess to love sport but for some reason despise rugby.

Regrettably, Wood, who has been one of sport's outstanding administrators, will for ever be perceived as Canute, standing, increasingly isolated, on the fast disappearing shoreline of amateurism. But events move on and Dudley, I suspect, will be very relieved not to be moving with them. His successor's job will be to maintain the channels of communication established by Wood and to concentrate now on the other side of the PR coin, the brushing up of the RFU's image.

For one thing, they must never again allow a statement as insufferably arrogant as the one issued at Twickenham last Saturday morning announcing the news of Carling's sacking. Not only did the message come across that the RFU were acting in the best interests of English rugby and the game in general, but, we were told, for the good of British sport. How unutterably pompous can you get. It certainly let Carling off the hook.

His mistake was not so much in making a flippant remark in an unguarded moment as in appearing on the programme in the first place. He must have known that he was entering territory which was certain to be hostile to rugby union and all it stands for. It was the aim of the programme and the nature of its presenter, Greg Dyke, to perform a hatchet job on rugby and they didn't miss a trick.

By the basic technique of interposing sweating, slogging players with gin-guzzling committee men, the programme succeeded in creating the impres- sion it sought, but one that was entirely false. Both Carling and Rob Andrew were no doubt persuaded that the programme would offer them an opportunity to air their views at a time when the players believed that they were banging their heads on the impenetrable wall of RFU intransigence. When the programme was recorded almost two months ago, Carling had just been thwarted by yet another example of administrative pettiness when he had been refused permission to appear in an advertisement. With some justification, therefore, the players believed that they were getting nowhere with their diplomatic initiatives and had decided on a more drastic route.

The problem with the players, of course, is that jam tomorrow is of not the slightest interest to them but, if the plan backfires, as it seems certain to do in the immediate aftermath of Carling's faux pas, it could severely damage relationships between the two sides and the progress that had already been made towards reaching a satisfactory agreement.

Had the RFU shown restraint, publicly rebuking Carling and telling him not to be such a silly boy in future, they would have come up smelling of roses. As it is, the public perception of the six who sat in judgement on the England captain is of something considerably more odious than a fart.

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