Power vacuum as Tunnicliffe takes swift exit

Neil Tunnicliffe, chief executive of the Rugby Football League for its past two, typically turbulent years has resigned with immediate effect.

Tunnicliffe, one of the youngest and, in an academic sense, cleverest administrators of a major sport, cleared his desk after meeting the League's chairman, Sir Rodney Walker, yesterday.

"I have been aware for some time that Neil has been considering his future away from rugby league and has indicated to me his wish to explore other career opportunities," he said. "During a period of constant change, Neil provided much-needed stability and he leaves the sport well prepared to face the challenges of the 21st century."

Tunnicliffe, a 35-year-old Wakefield Trinity supporter whose Oxford PhD in ancient history makes him an atypical rugby league enthusiast, said yesterday that his decision had been reached "progressively over the last six weeks. It is the cumulative effect of the job; it's just time to move on."

His role has involved a front-line position in the political in-fighting with Super League and, perhaps most damagingly, the Association of Premiership Clubs, which has been increasingly hostile towards his stewardship of the game and particularly his emphasis on development outside the heartlands.

"If people are being led in a completely different direction from the one you believe in, it becomes difficult, not to say impossible, to do the job as you would wish," he said.

The chairman of the APC, Bob McDermott, who called for Tunnicliffe's resignation in February, said: "I see this as an opportunity to bring in a strong man with a strong personality and solid commercial experience to take the game forward."

Tunnicliffe said he had "irons in the fire" but did not anticipate remaining in the game. "I can't see an alternative role within the game that would appeal to me," he said.

His departure leaves several loose ends. The League's board of directors is due to rule, now probably next week, on how Hull should be punished after the crowd disturbances at the recent Challenge Cup semi-final.

The game is also engaged in sensitive unification talks that could bring the RFL, Super League and Barla, custodians of the amateur game, under one association. And, this autumn, Tunnicliffe was due to be the tournament director of the code's biggest ever international event, the World Cup.

In the short term, the RFL's six associate directors will fill the vacuum, with the deputy chief executive, Dave Callaghan, taking on the main responsibility, but Joe Lydon, the director of performance, is seen by some as a potential successor. McDermott has ruled himself out.

The League's directors will discuss the vacancy before the meeting of the Rugby League Council at Salford tomorrow. If the need is felt to go outside the game, then Graham Kelly, who was linked with a job with Super League last year, could be a candidate.

* St Helens have agreed the sale of their Knowsley Road ground in a £2.5million deal. The buyers Wainhomes has also signed a two-year sponsorship with the club worth £540,000. Langtree Group, related to Wainhomes, has given the Super League champions land worth £1.25m to build a new stadium on a site next to the St Helens Linkway. Shareholders approved the move from Knowsley Road in December.

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