Lindsay rides storm clouds

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The Independent Online
It Was a rare day of triumph for Maurice Lindsay on Monday, his beaming pleasure at Great Britain having found a sponsor for the series against Australia in November only slightly marred by a heavy cold. It was a legacy of a journey back from visiting relatives in Sligo. There was a time when, having missed one ferry, he would have been expected simply to walk across the Irish Sea. On this occasion, the chief executive of the Rugby Football League waited for the next boat - but that does not mean his natural buoyancy has deserted him.

Holed below the waterline earlier this month by a governing body he had grown used to dominating, Lindsay refuses to sink. After all, it has been a good day. But can he put his hand on heart and say it has been a good year, for the game or for him? "I don't think you could possibly say that. Two things have happened which have flattened the year for us," he says.

The first was the badly supported and, so far, one-sided World Club Championship. "It was an exciting prospect, but it ended up being beyond us. I privately thought it might be, but I thought clubs and spectators would respond to it. But we aren't like cricket or rugby union where people will watch whatever the score. We need a contest - and our season has been under a cloud because we were cruelly exposed as being behind in both playing and coaching."

For a moment, it seems Lindsay might be admitting that he got it wrong. But no. "I would do exactly the same thing again, because unless you admit you have a problem you will never address it. We had to be exposed to make us work harder. We just have to endure the short-term loss of credibility."

The other cloud he sees hovering over the season is the in-fighting, with much of the storm having swirled around him. "We are moving through a period of change that we haven't yet come to terms with. The pounds 87m from News Corporation was a life-saver, but we were so relieved at that enormous, fat cheque dropping through the letter box that some clubs couldn't see anything else. At the same time, clubs like Bradford and Leeds started to look at where they were going to be positioned as businesses in the future, and the family togetherness that had bound rugby league together for 100 years started to break down."

It is amid those tensions that Lindsay's own position as the dominant figure within the game has come under increasing pressure. He denies ever having been the dictator of popular legend, but it was axiomatic at the League's HQ in Leeds that nothing happened without Maurice's say-so.

It was a situation that satisfied fewer and fewer of the interested parties. The amateurs of Barla were already in a long-running conflict with the RFL; Super League clubs and clubs from the First and Second Divisions established their own organisations. The chairman of the League, Sir Rodney Walker, set up a working party which gathered much criticism of Lindsay's style of leadership.

This was all due to come to a head at a meeting of the Rugby League Council earlier this month. It did so before the meeting when the Murdoch-owned Sun - of all papers on all days - ran a story on Lindsay's pounds 100,000 expense bill. Lindsay denies some of the figures quoted in the story and defends the rest, but admits to being baffled by its appearance and timing. One slightly desperate explanation, he suggests, could be that News were trying to help him by showing they were not too cosy with him. Another doing the rounds, I tell him, is that he planted the story himself. "That's too Machiavellian for me," he says.

Lindsay survived the threat, only to emerge from the meeting subdued and, to many eyes, marginalised. It is not an analysis he accepts. He has publicly welcomed the new composition of the board of directors, even though it is generally interpreted as tramelling his power. "We've got him where we want him," was the way a couple of influential figures put it.

Significantly, the first election to the board presented a choice between obviously pro- and anti-Lindsay candidates. The anti won in a landslide. "I don't accept that there has been a `Get Maurice' campaign," he says. "And I don't see how the power of the chief executive has been reduced. In any case, I don't care about myself - not if the message is getting through."

But what is that message? It is no longer that everything is for the best in the best of all possible worlds. It is that the game must sort itself out or pay the ultimate price. Ironically, the meeting that was expected to mark his demise saw him succeed - with the aid of a useful letter from News' Ken Cowley - in persuading clubs to accept that there will have to be real progress towards a truly national Super League before 2000, if the money tap is not to be turned off.

They also accepted a partial solution to their chronic over-spending - a salary cap. Clubs, he says, were supposed to sort themselves out with their share of the pounds 87m. Instead, they have dug themselves in deeper. "I spend a lot of time sorting out the mess they get themselves into."

But, if the clubs are badly at fault, not even Lindsay can claim that the game centrally has got everything right either. The Challenge Cup, as he knows, does not work as an early-season competition; the Premiership, the final of which is played today, "has had its day" and will be replaced, sooner or later, by an Australian-style play-off.

Lindsay is convinced all will be well in the end. But no one knows what form any re-negotiated contract with News will take and he remains worried about the effect of professional rugby union. A successful Test series against Australia would be a huge boost, yet it would be foolhardy to rely on it, as it is now almost 40 years since one was won on home soil.

However, this is a good day that gets better. When he leaves, Lindsay goes to meet Barla - and the game is closer to unification than it has been for decades. But the two events that make it such a good day have one thing in common. Neither sprang from Maurice Lindsay initiatives. Other people constructed the essential bridgeheads. Lindsay, cultivating a new persona as a team player, says it doesn't matter - but it would have been unthinkable a few months ago.