Captain prepared to ride out the storm

Tony Hallett, secretary of the Rugby Football Union, will face tough questioning at the AGM today. David Llewellyn reports
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The Independent Online
During his year in office the Rugby Football Union secretary, Captain Tony Hallett RN, seems to have been beset by one angry squall after another. If it wasn't the Five Nations, then it was the other Home Unions, or the English clubs, or their players, and all of this without pause to take stock.

Today Hallett, 51, who does not enjoy universal support in the RFU after his first 12 months in office, faces his most difficult moment yet at the RFU annual meeting in London. But he is expecting that. He also expects to win over the body politic of the game and persuade them, among other things, that the pounds 87.5m broadcasting deal with BSkyB is a good move, and that there is little likelihood of England being thrown out of the Five Nations because of it.

But he will be crossing uncharted waters at the Hilton Hotel, London, this afternoon. There are rumours that Cliff Brittle, controversially elected as chairman of the executive in January, will try to take the floor. If he does then Hallett may find he has a mutiny on their hands.

The urbane former secretary to the chiefs of staff during the Falklands War remains phlegmatic. Logic and reason are his weapons. "Firstly the agenda of the AGM is immutable," Hallett asserts. "It is set and you cannot disturb it at this hour." So much for a possible coup then.

As far as the BSkyB deal goes Hallett is adamant. "There is no way the meeting could overturn the decision. The committee takes decisions on behalf of the game in this country, just like any other company's board of directors and the contract is legal and binding. That's a fact."

As for rumblings from Brittle's supporters and the possible intervention by the executive chairman himself, Hallett points out: "Cliff Brittle is not scheduled to speak to the meeting. It would be normal practice for the incoming [John Richardson] and outgoing [Bill Bishop] presidents, after all they are the principal players on this occasion, to cover whatever points the union wishes to make. And I would not expect any member, even a senior officer of the union, to speak outside the agenda." Brittle has been warned.

Hallett is forearmed. "It's been a year of lots of challenges," he acknowledges, "but it's also been a lot of fun. I think some people have found out that I thrive in those circumstances. If I don't get a problem a day I start to wonder whether there is something wrong with the game."

But he does admit the possibility of resignation loomed recently when there appeared to be no solution in sight to the dispute with the English Professional Rugby Union Clubs (Epruc). "To me the wholeness of the game is what a governing body is about," he said. "So if there had been a breakaway by the clubs, then that would have been an issue over which I would certainly have considered resigning.

"But I would only resign on a principle of not being able to deliver what I believe the RFU is there to do, which is to be the guardian of the whole game. Since I am, in effect, the senior executive, if we had been unable to keep the game together, then I would have seen that as being a failure on my part and therefore I would have considered resigning."

As it is, resignation is the last thing on Hallett's mind as he gathers his thoughts and his cohorts for what promises to be the roughest AGM in RFU history. With or without the threat of Brittle and his huge army of support the RFU were always going to come under a broadside from the floor over the BSkyB-Five Nations issues.

To that end they took it upon themselves to draw up an explanation to explain their motives and reasoning. They are, according to Hallett, merely conforming to an International Board regulation which allows individual unions the right to negotiate their own broadcasting contracts - exercised by France for the last 12 years of the Five Nations' Championship.

In the past, RFU annual meetings have attracted little or no attention: this year's will be markedly different.

Hallett is aware that the meeting will be difficult, to say the least , yet he remains optimistic. "I expect it to be stormy at first," he says.

"And I'm expecting a meeting that will wish to examine exactly how the BSkyB contract was arrived at, under whose authority and its principal implications. I believe there is a logical and legal answer to any of the queries that may be raised."

But at the end of a year of dissension in the ranks Hallett wants to accentuate the positive. "The annual report is good, with success on and off the field for England. There was the acceptance by the union of the Bishop Commission report and there is the Coopers and Lybrand report into the running and infrastructure of the RFU, a report which will take the union into the age of professionalism and the 21st century. In addition to all that the financial results are probably the best on record against a backcloth of so many uncertainties following the game's decision to go open last August."