D Day dawns in the battle of England: Rugby Union

Chris Rea says the professional game's future hinges on today's decisions
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The Independent Online
On this day of maternal appreciation, it is appropriate that there is likely to be the mother of all debates at the NEC in Birmingham. The internecine feud, which has divided the Rugby Football Union since the election of Cliff Brittle as chairman of the executive committee last year, has reduced the union's other battle with the clubs to the status of a minor skirmish. Upon the outcome of today's special general meeting hangs the future of the professional game in England. It is that important and the club and county representatives have a simple choice.

Either they approve the changes to the constitution proposed by the RFU Committee, or they vote for the opposing motion. There are two principal issues, one concerning the appointment of the chairman of the board of management, the other the appointment of the chief executive. The RFU insist that the chairman should be elected by the members of the RFU Council. On the second issue, they propose that the post of secretary be renamed chief executive and that the role, which should be assumed by Tony Hallett, the present secretary, be redefined. Opponents want the executive chairman to be elected by the full membership of the union and the chief executive's job to be advertised nationally.

In the simplest of terms, the choice lies between the retention of a system which, apart from a few minor cosmetic changes, has run the amateur game for more than 125 years, or a structure designed to carry what remains a mainly recreational sport into the professional era. Last week the RFU, in a circular to the constituent bodies, promised the electorate that a vote for them would be a vote for peace and prosperity and that they would instill good business practice in the true spirit of rugby.

Baloney. The true spirit of rugby, if indeed there ever was such a thing, has been besmirched by the deceit and double-dealing of the past 12 months.

Are the men at present at the helm the same men to take English rugby forward into the next century? They were, after all, the body who, by their procrastination, allowed Sir John Hall and his like to buy up the players and nearly take control of the game. That terrifying prospect, incidentally, remains a possibility.

And what about the deal with BSkyB, described with self-congratulatory smugness in the RFU's recent bulletin as "the most successful deal ever for English rugby... which will help sustain England's place on the world stage"?

Even if we can forget the small matter of the pounds 22m going to the clubs, most of which will no doubt be spent on yet more overseas players, we must never forget that this was the deal which came closer than anything in the game's history to blasting asunder the Five Nations' Championship. The agreement reached between Scotland, Ireland and Wales, and the BBC has exposed the RFU's negotiation with Sky for what it is - a complete sell-out.

Despite repeated denials at last year's annual meeting, there will be pay-per-view. Sky will have control over the scheduling of matches, which could mean a serious upheaval in the screening of England's games. If, for example, next season the Scots play South Africa on the same day that England are playing New Zealand and both kick-offs are timed for 3pm, it is very unlikely that Sky would go head-to-head with the BBC and England's game would probably be rescheduled.

There is more - a substantial loss in sponsorship and perimeter advertising revenue as a result of the greatly reduced viewing figures on Sky; the RFU will not be able to set up any other competitions without Sky's approval. And, of course, as a consequence of their arrogance and as the price they must pay for being allowed to remain in the Five Nations' Championship, the RFU have to hand over a sizeable chunk of their television loot to the other unions. All of which means that the RFU have ended up with a fraction of the amount they could have had if the four home unions had negotiated a deal in partnership.

Nor is it nearly such an attractive proposition for Sky, who have got considerably less than they were originally bargaining for. The Anglo- Welsh fixtures have disappeared and without the Five Nations in its entirety there will not be the same rush to buy satellite dishes.

So how safe do you think the game would be in the hands of such men? Brittle and his supporters, the majority of whom, like Fran Cotton, do not cling to the past but want to embrace the future, have a vision of the way ahead and an understanding of how to get there.

It is a fundamental truth - and one recognised in the Lowry Report, from which this all stems - that the old post of secretary, rubber-stamping decisions made by a lay committee, and the new post of chief executive, controlling a multi-pound business, are very different. Getting the right man, whether it is Hallett or someone from outside the family, will be crucial to the successful running of the professional game. The post must be advertised and it must be at a salary commensurate with the requirements and responsibilities of the job.

The other matter which has to be addressed in Birmingham concerns the role and the authority of the chairman and who shall appoint him. Perhaps the questions to be asked are why Brittle - if he is the reincarnation of Hitler, as he was so ludicrously described last week - is choosing this most democratic of processes to seek an endorsement of his position, to which he was overwhelmingly elected just over a year ago? Furthermore, would a dictator go to the country seeking approval for how it should be run? Finally, why is it that on Friday, when the RFU met to discuss their tactics for today's meeting, Donald Kerr and Charles Levison, neither of them committee members but both heavily involved with the senior clubs organisation, were asked to attend?

The impression is that the RFU have been using their resources to undermine the authority of their own elected chairman. That cannot be right. The Lowry Committee which, contrary to the present misinformation, was not only supported by Brittle but initiated by him, was charged with investigating ways to modernise the game. What really seems to be needed is an immediate inquiry into the work of the RFU Committee. That will only be done, however, if the right decision is reached today.

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