Curious challenge to establishment

The Rugby Football Union votes for its chairman tomorrow. Steve Bale reports
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The Independent Online
The Rugby Football Union has for so long been equated with the establishment that to find it under assault from its own establishment - the mass of English clubs who are being led by the nose by the recalcitrant counties - for being too radical is as bizarre as in another sense it is grotesque.

But there it is. John Jeavons-Fellows, the RFU executive committee's unanimous nomination to be its chairman and also the choice of the vast majority of the RFU full committee, is resigned to losing the vote to Cliff Brittle, his challenger from the Isle of Man but representing Staffordshire, in tomorrow's special general meeting in Birmingham.

Such things are normally as dry as dust even to RFU member clubs, most of whom are not represented at annual meetings and will not be in Birmingham no matter how special the occasion. But Brittle, supported by the counties, has piled up a stack of proxies and looks set to beat the RFU's own nominee hands down, or perhaps that should be hands up, on a ticket which effectively demands a deceleration in the pace of change.

That this matters is not necessarily to do with the personalities involved, since they are curiously similar: self-made businessmen who made a packet out of selling their companies and have since devoted themselves to rugby. Rather, it is because of the utter misconception on which Brittle's apparently successful campaign has rested and the calamitous consequences in prospect of a Brittle victory.

The nub of the argument is that in the rush to professionalism, the RFU has ignored the small clubs and their interests. This would be true if there were any urgent interests involved; instead, even with the RFU choosing to let the "open" game apply to anyone who makes that choice, the coming of professionalism has next to no relevance for the broad swathe who will simply carry on as if nothing had happened.

The real urgency was for the RFU to address the implementation of professionalism - which it did in the well-received commission report that will go before tomorrow's meeting - and sort out the top level of the game where the impact would be felt.

Brittle presents himself as a realist intent on uniting all levels of the game, and one of the blizzard of faxes his PR campaign has circulated also presents him as the "common man".

This is an interesting description of a man living in tax exile - although one can but gasp in admiration at the way he has marshalled his forces at county level, where they have bitterly and quite rightly come to see themselves as marginalised by the advance of the big clubs and the overwhelming primacy accorded to the national team.

They ought to know, however, that they are playing with fire. Not withstanding unlikely conciliatory noises being made by Peter Wheeler of Leicester, it is by no means fanciful that if the tail really does wag the dog as threatened, then the leading clubs will secede from the union. Is that what Brittle, the counties or the hundreds of clubs voting by proxy want?

No, of course not, but this is the path that is being followed unerringly and has been allowed to proceed unchallenged because the RFU has felt unable to counter-campaign on behalf of the official candidate. Even Jeavons-Fellows has been muted in his defence, as well as privately dismayed thatTwickenham has not openly come to his aid.

But if and when Brittle wins, he will have to chair the same executive who self-evidently have no confidence in him. Hereby may lie the RFU's salvation: as Brittle will be answerable to the executive, we can suppose he will fulfil their will. And then they can go to the AGM in July and try all over again.

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