Leadership of RFU under fire

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Rugby Union

John Burgess, a former president of the Rugby Football Union, last night launched a vitriolic attack on Twickenham at the union's annual meeting in London's Hilton Hotel. Representatives were already leaving the ballroom when Burgess, a former England coach who headed the RFU in 1987-88, stood up and harangued the sport's leaders.

He began by referring to the abortive sacking of Will Carling as England captain last May. "The handling of the Carling affair has become a part of sport folklore," Burgess said. "There has been an alienation of clubs and constituent bodies and there is the isolation of the RFU in the Five Nations committee. English rugby is being held up for ridicule by the Southern Hemisphere countries. The emerging nations previously regarded England as the mother nation of the game; not any more."

In a speech lasting 22 minutes Burgess spared no one. He attacked Twickenham for staging what he called "the gimmick matches between Bath and Wigan". He said: "We spend pounds 300,000 a year to develop the game the game up north. Yet we give Rugby League, a dying game, a pounds 1m freebie, publicity and credibility. I don't know any other sport or business which would go out of its way to help an ailing competitor."

Burgess clearly sympathised with Cliff Brittle, the chairman of the executive committee, who had earlier sidestepped RFU AGM procedure to take the floor himself. "When I was elected I expected things to be difficult," Brittle said. "I'm afraid that to date they have been almost impossible. I was elected to do certain duties but have been unable to do them. This cannot go on for a moment longer."

Brittle, who said he had not known Burgess was going to speak, let alone what he was going to say, announced the formation of a working party to look into the perceived breakdown of relations between officers of the union and Twickenham's paid employees.

It is believed that Sir Pat Lowry, the former chairman of Acas and now president of Wasps, will head the working party, which is expected to deliver its report by 1 September.

Burgess welcomed the move, but having accused certain members of the RFU of arrogant complacency and charging a large number of the committee of being out of touch with the game, he rounded on the RFU secretary, Tony Hallett.

"The secretary is increasingly acting as a chief executive," Burgess said, citing an advertisement which Hallett placed when looking for a personal assistant. In it Hallett referred to his job as that of chief executive. Hallett later said that he used the identical wording that had been used when he applied for the post of secretary a year ago.

But Burgess said: "The RFU does not accept the secretary should become a chief executive. His [Hallett's] activities should be severely curtailed." He also called for the contract with the RFU's PR consultants, Michael Humphreys and Partners, to be reviewed. All this needed to be done, he felt, to restore the dignity of the union.

But in fact it was a more peaceful meeting than expected. The outgoing President, Bill Bishop, who is succeeded by a solicitor, John Richardson, 64, made an unexpected statement which may assuage immediate fears for the future of the Five Nations tournament.

"Sir Tasker Watkins, president of the Welsh , and myself met last week to discuss the Five Nations' Championship," Bishop said. "Following that, four representatives from each union met on Tuesday and there was unanimous agreement that the Five Nations' Championship is paramount to the game and should continue as such. Ways must be found to ensure this, particularly in the area of television contracts, and these should be pursued urgently."

Amid all this, the RFU treasurer, David Robinson, who is stepping down because of ill health, announced a pounds 6m pre-tax profit.