Brittle braves the battleground

New man on the bridge plays the peacemaker as threat of a breakaway grows in the struggle for the heart of the union; Paul Trow assesses the qualities of a grassroots leader facing a difficult mission
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The Independent Online
AS PEOPLE'S champions go, Cliff Brittle is hardly high-profile, despite his clean-cut, matinee-idol looks. He comes strongly recommended by those who know him well, one associate describing him with a mixture of envy and admiration as "a smooth, handsome bastard", but to the game as a whole he is a mystery.

How this mystery unravels only time will tell, but the new chairman of the Rugby Football Union's executive committee undoubtedly has charisma and, for the next few weeks at least, he can expect to have the game's hierarchy eating out of his hand. Last Sunday at a special meeting in Birmingham, Brittle, a retired 54-year-old businessman who lives in the Isle of Man and is a beneficiary of the island's sympathetic tax system, trounced John Jeavons-Fellows, another self-made Midlander and the RFU's favoured candidate, by 647 votes to 332 for the chairmanship of the body that decides how the game should be run in England.

The occasion was significant for several reasons. It represented Middle England's first response to the International Board's endorsement of the principle of professionalism in Paris last autumn. It highlighted the difficulty the RFU have in running a tight ship and the danger of an elite breakaway. And it demonstrated unequivocally that, whatever else English rugby may be in these turbulent times, it definitely cannot claim to be "one nation".

In essence, Brittle, who has represented his native county, Staffordshire, on the RFU committee since 1989, owes his victory to the grassroots - hundreds of ordinary clubs who will never be actively involved in the professional game but are fed up with decisions being handed down without debate or discussion.

"We feel we are being route-marched by the elite clubs down a certain road. The junior clubs have been left behind despite representing the majority of the game," said the Staffordshire secretary Roy Smith, who has known Brittle since his playing days in the 1960s as a dashing centre or stand-off for his county and three clubs - Old Longtonians, Stoke-on- Trent and briefly Sale. "We recognise the senior clubs have a lucrative future, but I believe Cliff will be able to reconcile the conflicting interests. Not only is he a good talker, he is also a good listener. He is very fair and understands the issues, but he can also be shrewd and tough, as you would expect of someone who has been a successful businessman."

Brittle will indeed need to be tough to take charge of a committee whose 18 members by and large don't want him, though no one can decry the impressive credentials of his proposer (the former RFU president Ian Beer) and seconder (Twickenham's home county of Middlesex). His initial comments after the election suggested that he wished to cast himself in the role of peacemaker rather than the man who presided over a breakaway. "I hope we can pull together," he said. "I know exactly what the role should be - it's impossible that England should vote to retain amateurism."

To confirm that view, though, another meeting will need to be convened within five weeks to decide once and for all whether the RFU's membership does wish to embrace an open game, and can live with a solution modelled on county cricket, a professional apex on an otherwise amateur game.

Meanwhile, Brittle has suddenly become very busy. His home telephone is being bombarded with up to 60 calls a day and his feet have barely touched the ground since his elevation to high office. "My priority is to get this game united and I am working hard on this. Other things must come second," he said before dashing down to London for discussions with the RFU secretary Tony Hallett and other officials, and then heading off to Paris for yesterday's France-England encounter.

Fears that Brittle's offshore address may prevent him from fully discharging his new responsibilities are dismissed by those closest to him. "Even though he has to travel from the Isle of Man he never misses a committee meeting," said Smith. "Cliff regularly comes to the club and makes a point of keeping in touch. He even remembered to send me pounds 10 for the Christmas raffle," said the Stoke-on-Trent stalwart Tom Maskrey, who has known Brittle since he was 15. "As a Staffordshire man I'm delighted he got the vote. He was never a great intellectual, though he did surprise his old headmaster at Longton High School in Stoke by passing A-level economics. But his business experience should help enormously in his new position. He used to manage pop groups in the 1960s, but he made his money a few years ago when he and his brother sold their heating and tool business."

Despite such a varied career, Brittle is still an unknown quantity to Peter Wheeler, the chairman of the League One Clubs Committee and the man who could trigger the feared split. Wheeler believes a solution will be found, but stresses that time is in short supply. "We are very happy to remain within the RFU provided we are at least involved in the administration and structure of our part of the game," the former England and Leicester hooker said. "But we need to know soon what our income is likely to be next season."

Tom Barker, the Sale chairman, no doubt spoke for most League One clubs when he said: "A split is the last thing we want, but Rupert Murdoch must be rubbing his hands with glee at what's going on."

Murdoch may be planning a two-pronged assault on the game by either buying up the Five Nations' Championship or recruiting the top players for a tournament of his own making. But his countryman, the former World Cup-winning captain Nick Farr-Jones, believes Brittle and the rest of the English establishment will muddle through in the end. Decision- making in Britain is convoluted and takes time, he said, "but they'll get it right eventually."

Which way now? Clubs across the Courage divisions suggest a blueprint for the game

Saracens

National League One

WE HAVE always been a friendly club with a family atmosphere, and Nigel Wray, our benefactor, wants that to continue. We have 300 children at the club every Sunday for mini-rugby and we want to retain our links with grassroots clubs. But as a first division side we are committed to the 'open' game and if push comes to shove the senior clubs will go it alone. We don't want that to happen and I can't see there being a split in the English game at the end of all this.

I think the different levels in the game will learn to exist side by side with players going up or down the divisions as they get better or older. Rugby should be run like county cricket with a fully professional structure of, say, 18 top clubs encompassing no more than 600 players and the rest of the game, which could be as many as 200,000 players, remaining amateur. There's never going to be enough money in the game to sustain anything bigger than that and there should always be room for enthusiastic amateurs.

Bill Edwards, press officer

Need to retain friendly

family atmosphere

Split in English game unlikely

Rugby should emulate county cricket

Camborne

National League Five South

THE RFU commission's report was aimed at the top 20 clubs and ignored the other 2,000. Our problem is that being part of a national league structure is expensive. For instance, we recently played at Norwich, which is a 10-hour journey. Players had to leave work at Friday lunchtime and we spent pounds 2,500 on hotels. That's farcical for a League Five club - we shouldn't have to travel further than Gloucester, which is three hours away.

Many clubs will end up spending a lot of money relative to their resources on players. We certainly couldn't afford to go professional, though under an open system we might make some money by transferring players. At our level, players should be compensated for loss of earnings and given some beer money as long as it is all above board. One problem I envisage is how students will complete their education if they become full-time players. Also, what will the game do to find employment for people once their playing careers are over?

Robin Cowling, coach

Expensive to play in National League

Compensate players for lost earnings

How will students finish their education?

Manchester

North One

I WENT to the RFU meeting last Sunday, which was a shambles. It is no surprise the grassroots clubs got upset at the way the commission's report was handed down like a tablet in stone to receive and approve. The game should be 'open', and honest, with, ideally, a seamless gradation between professional and amateur levels. I don't think many clubs want the game to be purely amateur again. We all have an opportunity to attract a younger public into the development of our game and create centres of excellence.

The danger in an 'open' game is that some clubs will overstretch themselves by paying for players they can't afford. It will be very tempting if you have one piece of the jigsaw missing and are pushing for promotion. But at Manchester there is no way we will go down the road to bankruptcy - we will only spend money we already have. But we are certainly ambitious and are hoping that the forthcoming league restructuring will lift us into the new National League Four North.

Norman Thomas, secretary

RFU meeting was a shambles

Seamless link between pros and amateurs

Clubs may overstretch themselves financially

Darlington

Durham & Northumberland One

WE FEEL that the RFU have been more than a little out of touch with the grassroots of the game, and that has been the biggest problem. A breakaway would not be good for the game and there is no reason why the professional and amateur games can't both come under the RFU's umbrella even though their requirements are quite different. But the breakaway threat is definitely there and it is now up to the RFU to pull their fingers out and come up with a structure we can all live with.

At Darlington we have just moved to a pounds 1.7m development on the outskirts of the town following the sale of our old ground. We want to move up to a much higher level and acquire National League status, but we are at least four or five seasons away from that. With so many league and cup fixtures there is not much time for the players to rest. It is also difficult to fit in such traditional occasions as our annual game with Carlisle, which has been on our fixture list for 115 years and which we would like to keep.

Andrew Foster, secretary

RFU out of touch with grassroots

Act to prevent senior clubs' breakaway

Need to retain traditional fixtures

Michelin

Staffs & Warwicks Four

MOST players I come across would like to see the game stay amateur. It is difficult enough getting 15 people out on Saturday without having bigger clubs poach your players by offering them money. It is fair enough for the top players to be paid but below the first two divisions the game should be strictly amateur. There is a lot of loyalty in clubs at our level and unless you are an outstanding young prospect you tend to stay with your mates.

Recently one of our players, who is quite good, was offered a move to another club 30 or 40 miles away. I don't know whether any money was involved, but it wouldn't have made sense unless they paid him something. Fortunately, he's decided to stay with us. And a rival club, who we beat earlier in the season, have made a lot of new signings and we are interested to see what happens in the return match in a few weeks' time when the new players will be eligible. In effect we will be facing professionals, but we play rugby for fun and comradeship, not rewards.

Paul Gill, secretary

Players show loyalty towards their clubs

Poaching goes on at humblest level

Key is comradeship and fun, not rewards

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