Blurred vision at League as Tunnicliffe leaves

Dave Hadfield says code will now go for cash saving instead of converts
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The Independent Online

Rugby League, particularly that bit of it which operates out of Red Hall, on the outskirts of Leeds, is in turmoil this weekend and bracing itself for further revelations about the way in which it has lost its chief executive.

Neil Tunnicliffe, the main man at the Rugby Football League for the past two years, departed on Tuesday with what can only be described as unseemly haste. He might, as he says, have been planning his resignation for months; but, when it came, he was down the road, with his desk cleared, before the fact was even announced to the outside world.

There are a number of strands to the story of how he came to leave so suddenly. First, there is the attrition factor. For most of his period of office, Tunnicliffe - not by nature a street fighter - has been in exhausting conflict with others in the game. Initially, the antagonists were the Super League, to which his predecessor, Maurice Lindsay, decamped in January 1998 with all manner of loose ends left at the RFL. As Tunnicliffe painstakingly got relations with them back on to some sort of even keel, so those with Fasda - the First and Second Division Association, now the Association of Premiership Clubs (APC) - deteriorated. APC's chairman, Bob McDermott, has made no secret of his disapproval of Tunnicliffe's stewardship. He tried on more than one occasion to have him removed; "not up to it" was one of his more sympathetic assessments of the former chief executive last week.

The problem is that the two men feel instinctively that the RFL exists for two different purposes. To McDermott - and, no doubt, to many of those in charge of running cash-strapped clubs - it is there primarily to assist its members in staying afloat. Tunnicliffe's emphasis has been more strategic. Never involved at club level, his background is in academia, student rugby league and publishing.

His priority has been to push back the boundaries of the game in the British Isles, something Super League has been singularly bad at doing, by planting games and grass-roots investment in Ireland, Scotland and Wales. Such plans were never going to be cheap, but the RFL's annual accounts, seen by the member clubs if not yet made public, show a loss of almost £400,000, much of it on the back of expensive and poorly attended home internationals last autumn.

To clubs worrying about paying the milk bill this is scandalous stuff, but their prospects of getting rid of someone whose vision conflicted with their own were improved immeasurably by a scandal of another sort.

Tunnicliffe calls it "office politics" and says it finally pushed him into resignation. The details which have leaked out of Red Hall - and they have been leaking out in all directions - talk of decadence, jealousy and incriminating e-mails.

"It's been like Sodom and Gommorrah in there," said one critic, perhaps slightly overstating the extent of the fun and games, last week.

It will probably take the long lenses and the chequebooks of the tabloid news desks to tease out the full, lurid story. But whatever mistakes, personal, professional or political, Tunnicliffe might have made, his departure removes from the scene someone with a genuine vision for the game.

In the end, not enough shared that vision, and the League are now likely to look to a hard-headed pragmatist. The ideal candidate in many eyes would be someone in their own image: a no-nonsense, business-orientated manager, who cares little whether they play rugby league in Dublin or Glasgow and who will shove a few quid in their direction.