Battle for the heart of the union

'There is no quicker road to ruin than this'
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The Independent Online
The longest and most unsavoury spat in the history of the Rugby Football Union will reach its acrimonious conclusion in London on Friday. It has been a ripping yarn of clandestine meetings, treachery, deceit, duplicity, greed and power and it has split asunder a once-respected and respectable governing body. Although the issues which have so grievously divided the RFU are many and complex, the choice facing the electorate at Friday's annual meeting is a simple one - Cliff Brittle or Bob Rogers for the crucial post as chairman of the Board of Management.

I make no apology for the fact that in the 12 months since the scandalous manipulation of last year's AGM and the cynical disregard for the wishes of the majority in the intervening period, I have been the most constant of Brittle's supporters. Any lingering doubts about the wisdom of this course were dispelled a couple of weeks ago when the cabal that is at present running English rugby launched a cheap personal attack on me through a national tabloid. Among other charges too daft even to merit a response, a "member of the RFU hierarchy" claimed that I was Brittle's stooge. Let me tell this unnamed braveheart that after 25 years of writing and broadcasting on the game I am perfectly capable of distinguishing right from wrong, fact from fiction and a threat from a promise.

The real sadness, however, is that such odious tactics come as no surprise. On their performance over the last year it is simply par for the course. These are desperate men in desperate times and in a last-ditch attempt to save their own skins they have taken to issuing a stream of anti-Brittle propaganda from Twickenham. This has gone out on RFU headed paper and appears therefore to have the approval and authority of the full committee. This is not so, hence the open letter circulated last week by several prominent committee members, including Bill Beaumont and Air Chief Marshal Sir Michael Stear, dissociating themselves from such comments.

This properly counters one of the cabal's main contentions; that those in senior positions within the RFU are accountable to the membership. Clearly they are not. Another big claim is that they have secured unprecedented funding for the game at all levels. Leaving aside the fact that three of the RFU's principal sponsors have withdrawn after many years of loyal support and that, at the time of writing, there are not sponsors in place for the intermediate and junior cup competitions or for the leagues below the top two divisions, the question surely is not how much money is coming into the game but how much more is pouring out of it.

Club rugby is in a state of financial chaos with the combined debts of the 24 leading clubs estimated at pounds 15m. It is also estimated that next season's wage bills for a number of the biggest spending clubs will be approaching a staggering pounds 3m per club. These are shortfalls which cannot possibly be made up by sponsorship and television. Rugby league, which has already been through this particular pain barrier but without the same colossal financial commitments to its players, must be laughing its newly sponsored socks off. And in South Africa, where rugby is a national obsession and where money, we were told, was no object, the game is on the verge of bankruptcy. So grave is the position that there is every likelihood that those grades below top provincial level will soon be returning to full amateurism. It cannot be long before the game in Britain follows suit.

The briefest of glances at the RFU accounts reveal a deficit over the year in excess of pounds 6m. Clubs are still awaiting the television money from last year at a time when they should be expecting to receive this year's payments. But even if the BSkyB deal is all it has been cracked up to be and even if a whole raft of new sponsors can be found within the next few days, as is being promised, the game will still be insolvent. I understand that agreement has been reached with Mark McCormack's organisation, IMG, to take over the RFU's commercial operation which, as a challenge, must surely rate alongside the Millennium project.

What is required is the kind of management and accountability being urged by Brittle, whose achievements in the face of unrelenting opposition and resistance have been considerable. They include the restoration of England to the Five Nations' Championship following the fiasco of the Sky negotiations; the re-negotiation of important clauses in the long-form contract with Sky, principally the inclusion of the pay-per-view veto (which was not part of the heads of agreement and was only inserted as a result of the pressure applied by Brittle); fairer distribution of monies to all levels of the membership; a more favourable agreement with the leading clubs; a more streamlined management structure; insistence on greater democracy and accountability within the RFU.

But it is Brittle's vision for the future and his absolute determination to rid the RFU of the discredited policies and practices which are bringing this noble body to its knees which place him head and shoulders above his rival Bob Rogers, whose manifesto, if such it can be called, is merely an endorsement of everything that has been done in the past with the promise of more of the same in the future. There is no quicker road to ruin than this.