Politics and plots enter musty world

Rugby Union
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The Independent Online
In those dim days when rugby men, players as well as administrators, told us sport and politics should not mix, they said it as a specific way around the perennial South African problem. Of course, sport and politics always did mix, in South Africa more than anywhere.

No one upheld this dubious, deluded credo more vehemently than the Rugby Football Union, not least when it sent an England team to South Africa in 1984 without too much opposition from those annoyingly persistent moralisers who suggested rugby might - just - have a wider responsibility than to itself alone.

I mention this as a scene-setter for the political drama which, while English Rugby was frozen solid over the weekend, was continuing to unfold within the very same RFU which 11 years ago, and on countless other occasions, demanded the separation of sport and politics. A bit like the races used to be by South African law, I dare say, though one can now thank Heaven that South Africa's problems are no longer rugby's.

Anyway, anyone unfamiliar with the arcane world of the RFU may have missed the fact that election fever is mounting, since politics and the RFU are suddenly mixing so smoothly that there are two candidates and not the anticipated one for the newly-created and powerful position of chairman of the union's 18-strong executive.

There would be nothing especially enthralling about that except that by the time the protagonists reach the vote at the start of the RFU's special general meeting on amateurism on 14 January in Birmingham, they will have shamelessly used the media to state their respective cases in a way that could not have been conceived in what at least one of them might consider the good old days.

Come in, the Midlands maulers John Jeavons-Fellows and Cliff Brittle, your time for campaigning is nearly up. In fact, when the RFU held its annual meeting in London in July, someone else - Peter Bromage, hitherto the union's Treasurer - was elected unopposed as Executive Chairman. A safe pair of hands, or so it was thought, for the new era of semi-professionalism.

A week later Bromage died. Seven weeks later, the International Rugby Board gave up on even semi-professionalism and declared rugby union "open", i.e. professional at the top end. Three months later, Jeavons-Fellows, one of the RFU's IRB representatives, and a former competitions' chairman, beat Robert Horner of Kent to become the executive's own nominee as its chairman, a vote subsequently endorsed by the full committee so that his final endorsement by the SGM appeared a formality.

At which point enter Brittle, who although a member of the Bishop Commission which delved into RFU affairs a year or two ago, could not be regarded among the RFU committee's higher-profile members. Hardly surprising, perhaps, since Brittle lives in tax-exile on the Isle of Man.

He has, incidentally, undertaken to return to the mainland where he has represented Staffordshire - adjacent, as it happens, to Jeavons-Fellows's North Midlands - since 1989. Brittle has been nominated by Ian Beer, a past RFU President heavily implicated in the ignominy of the sacking of Will Carling as England captain in May, and seconded by the Middlesex county RU.

Brittle feels himself to be the grass-roots candidate whereas, by implication, Jeavons-Fellows, though from far-away Stourbridge, is too much of a Twickenham insider. Brittle regards himself as representative of all levels of the game whereas, by implication, Jeavons-Fellows is over-occupied with the rush to professionalism and therefore the top end. In sum, Brittle considers he stands for the neglected mass of the RFU's 2,000-plus membership. The tail of the dog.

That we know all this is because Cliff Brittle has made sure we do and the means by which he and, for sure, the RFU, are conducting this election differ only in quantity from how politicians might fight a by-election.

It started just before Christmas when the RFU began having discreet words in journalists' ears suggesting that Jeavons-Fellows was the man of essential experience and progress; ergo Brittle, an RFU committee man, do not forget, was essentially a force for reaction at this difficult time.

However, no sooner had the RFU begun its lobbying operation than Brittle was fighting back by using the same PR person as the aforementioned Middlesex RU does. Would we be interested in Cliff's curriculum vitae - well, of course - and it duly followed last Friday along with what amounted to a manifesto.

No sooner was this in the public domain than the RFU Media Centre, another recent creation, was throwing its full weight with questionable partiality behind Jeavons-Fellows, quoting the RFU president Bill Bishop - of Commission fame - in the official candidate's support and pointing out that Jeavons- Fellows had the confidence of not only the executive of 18 - including, one supposes, Robert Horner - but also the full committee of 60. Bishop tried to persuade Brittle to withdraw; Brittle refused.

In the case of the full committee, we know that Bishop's remarks do not hold good for Beer, as he is Brittle's proposer. Nor do they include another past president, Danie Serfontein, nor two other RFU committee members: David Franklin of the English Schools' RFU and no less a personage than Air Chief Marshal Sir Michael Stear (not Steer, as in the press release), representing the RAF.

We know this because these officers and gentlemen are quoted in Brittle's press release, as is Brittle himself, who says he has "received numerous requests from all levels of the game, members of the RFU Committee, senior and junior clubs and counties throughout the union" to stand against Jeavons- Fellows.

It will give the special meeting an unusual piquancy, an interest transcending anything the RFU has achieved of late at its annual meeting.

It is intensely political, even rather important. And most of the rugby punters out there could not give a damn.