Brittle victory threatens chaos for RFU

Rugby Union

STEVE BALE

A grassroots counter-revolution of the Rugby Football Union's member clubs yesterday saw the anti-establishment candidate for the RFU's executive chairmanship elected by a landslide at a shambolic and sensational special meeting in Birmingham which broke up with even the seemingly dead issue of amateurism still to be resolved.

It is by no means certain that another special meeting will not vote to turn English backs on the rest of the rugby world. The RFU would have no option but to secede from the International Board if the bulk of clubs - nearly all of whom will remain amateur anyway - vote as they appeared to feel at the International Convention Centre last night.

Remarkably, Cliff Brittle's trouncing of the RFU committee's nominee, the IB representative John Jeavons-Fellows, by 647 votes to 332 was only part of the humiliation. Another special general meeting must be convened within six weeks at which the very principle of abandoning amateurism in according with the IB's changed regulations will be specifically voted on.

This is an extraordinarily perilous path, not least because the England team who begin the Five Nations' Championship in France this Saturday have already been handsomely professionalised and all the leading clubs are now putting the new dispensation into place ready for next season.

The sense of this meeting, attended by more than 800 delegates also wielding a pile of proxy votes which took 70 minutes to cast, was patently in favour of retaining amateurism even though the same people had already voted acceptance of the changed IB regulations and various consequent amendments in RFU regulations. But most dramatic of all, if the next meeting voted to retain amateurism, the RFU would effectively have no alternative but the farcical one of IB withdrawal.

However, last night even Brittle, 54, a retired businessman who represents Staffordshire, on the RFU but lives in tax exile on the Isle of Man, anticipated that the "seamless" game - applying to all members of the union - enunciated in the recent RFU report was likely to win acceptance. It was the refusal of the meeting to start a debate on this report that precipitated the referral to another meeting.

Yesterday's votes, effectively of no confidence in the executive committee who had unanimously nominated Jeavons-Fellows, leaves Brittle to work with men who self-evidently have no confidence in him, though after the meeting he played the conciliator. "For me there will not any difficulty at all. I ask the executive to search their consciences and I sincerely hope we can unite and take the game forward," he said.

However, at least one prominent member of the executive said he was considering his position and the notion that wounds can be so easily healed had already been blown apart by remarks attributed to Jeavons-Fellows in Saturday night's Birmingham Sports Argus: "It's a treacherous decision to appeal to the Old Rubberduckians, HMS Pinafore and RAF Akrotiri at a time when the RFU should be setting an example of stability and unity."

For his part, Brittle gladly confessed to having strongly supported amateurism - but only until it was abandoned by the IB.

"Over the last few years I have been a strong advocate of retaining amateurism, and that I am not ashamed of," he said.

"But the International Board made a decision in August to go professional. One can question how that decision came about but the fact is they did do it and as far as I'm concerned personally I accept that decision." The rebellious grassroots may not be an amenable.

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