Brittle aims to call tune in ballroom battle

David Llewellyn sets the scene for today's battle over who runs rugby

The silver service at London's Hilton Hotel may find itself being used in the ballroom rather than the dining room this evening as delegates gather for what could prove to be Rugby Football Union's night of the long knives.

If last year's annual meeting was a stormy enough affair then this year's could reach hurricane force after 12 months of the sport's equivalent of global warming. There is a growing feeling among the membership that Twickenham has over-reached itself and that the power base needs shifting a touch nearer the game's roots.

It is unlikely that there will be any casualties at tonight's meeting, but the repercussions, ramifications and aftershocks could account for a few bodies and reputations over the next few months.

It is unlikely that one of those will be millionaire Cliff Brittle, the 55-year-old former equipment hire company chairman. He has been chairman of the now defunct executive committee, during which time he has been a lone voice against such things as the RFU's negotiations with BSkyB for rights to broadcast all England home matches, including their Five Nations games, as well as the demands by the senior clubs for a degree of autonomy to run their own game. He is standing for election to the newly created management board, which will be responsible for the day- to-day running of the game in England.

Brittle, who has the backing of the recently formed RFU Reform Group, whose membership includes the former England captain and RFU committee member, Bill Beaumont, is opposed by the establishment nominee, Bob Rogers, a 53-year-old solicitor from Worthing. It is a racing certainty that Brittle will win the day.

But if the election itself is a hot enough issue, it is nothing to what could be generated by Item 10 of an 11-item agenda. Starkly, and crucially from a legal standpoint, it states: "To consider business of which due notice has been given..."

In total there are 10 topics, the chief of which are a handful aimed at curbing the powers of the acting chief executive, currently the RFU secretary Tony Hallett, who has been appointed pro tem, the position to be reviewed in October.

South Liverpool RUFC is proposing to accord full authority to the chairman of the management board (which should be Brittle) to represent the union in all matters and that he shall oversee the chief executive (Hallett, temporarily at least).

But yet another motion, proposed by Manchester FC calls for the post of chief executive to be advertised and the appointment made by a selection panel containing independent people in addition to RFU management board officers.

Perhaps anticipating failure with the above, the Manchester club has a second proposal to follow its first, that the chief executive shall report to and work under the authority of the chairman of the management board.

Unfortunately for the Reformists and for Brittle none of the above are legally binding. The RFU has had them checked out and will not be obliged to carry out the wishes of the 2,200 member clubs and constituent bodies even if the proposals were to receive unanimous approbation.

However, it would be a foolish thing to ignore them completely, particularly demands to justify legal expenditure of pounds 550,000 in the year 1995-96, and a similar one calling for justification of PR guru Sir Tim Bell's 12-month contract at pounds 20,000 per month.

And it would be positively suicidal were they to dismiss a further proposal calling for "...a full independent inquiry into the manner in which the Union conducts its business, with particular reference to the way in which commercial contracts are awarded and in which senior staff appointments are made..."

The implications of the request are certainly unpleasant, but nothing like as bad as they would be were the management board to refuse to set up such an investigation. That would suggest they had something to hide. Legally, they may be in the clear. Morally, they would not and then the knives would be out for sure.

How professionalism sparked two-year civil war

It began in August 1995 when the International Rugby Football Board, the worldwide game's governing body, decreed that the sport should go open, or in other words, professional.

The game was divided in England over the issue. The division of views led, for one reason or another, to three special general meetings in 14 months.

At the first SGM, ostensibly to debate the issue of professionalism, Cliff Brittle - champion of the anti-professionalism lobby (the grassroots of the 2,000-plus membership) was elected as chairman of the executive committee. At the second SGM the principle of professionalism was accepted by the grassroots.

The third SGM in March saw the membership retain the right to elect future chairmen of the management board - which will replace the executive committee - contrary to moves by Twickenham.

Throughout all this a rancorous split developed, which only ended at the beginning of the year, between the RFU and the top 24 clubs, who wanted to run their game independently while still remaining part of the union. Brittle and his supporters battled long and hard to prevent this.

Elsewhere, a deal was struck between the RFU and BSkyB for exclusive coverage of all England's home Tests for five years from 1998. This caused temporary expulsion of England from the Five Nations' Championship.

The RFU Reform Group was formed containing notables such as the former England captain Bill Beaumont, and they have been questioning the integrity of certain RFU officers and committee members. The Reformists are backing Brittle against the RFU's Bob Rogers in today's election to the chair of the management board.

Tony Hallett, the RFU secretary who has been a particular focus of attack by the Brittle camp, becomes chief executive from today, but only in an acting capacity. His performance will be reviewed in October at which point the job may be advertised.

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