profile; Tony Hallett; Captain on a cruel sea

Owen Slot studies the tough challenges facing a visionary with the good of rugby at heart
Click to follow
The Independent Online
FOR FOUR weeks now the storm has been brewing over the future of rugby union. The Loire valley has been a peaceful spot to sit it out, but when Tony Hallett returns from his family holiday next weekend, he will start steering swiftly against the tide. For, as the new secretary, it is Hallett's job to prevent the Rugby Football Union from sinking without trace.

With the game now moving faster than at any time in its history, you would not give the RFU, the slick manoeuvres of its administrators well documented in recent months, the slightest chance of keeping up. But in Hallett, a 50-year-old navy captain, they have advanced a man who goes against their deep grain. Back in May, when the senior members of the administration were about to reel in Will Carling, this was the man who rang the England captain on the golf course, told him to start wriggling, and did his best to get him off the hook.

This was also the man who embraced the idea of European club competition when it was becoming inevitable three months ago; "the time is right," he said, while those around him were calling for caution. And a month later, when it was announced that Rupert Murdoch had invested pounds 360m in southern hemisphere rugby, it was Hallett who called for immediate reaction. "The clock is ticking," he said, while others in the RFU would have slept through the alarm. "They have thrown down the gauntlet and we have to form some response."

Most importantly, though, this is the man who would spend hours arguing with Dudley Wood, the previous incumbent as secretary, whose stance against professionalism opened the gulf between administrators and players which Hallett is now hard at work trying to bridge. "We used to have very hard, long debates among ourselves about it," Hallett said. "In the intellectual battle, it was basically me versus Dudley. He would accept my argument, that the game wasn't amateur and that it was heading for change, but he could never endorse it. We are extremely good friends, but it was a dialogue which was never resolved and never would be while we were in our respective positions. And I would say to him: "Who will be right in the end? You've got no chance, Dudley. Your holding on could destroy the fabric of the game."

For over 10 years, Hallett has been a dissenting voice within the RFU, his quarrel with amateurism being sandwiched neatly between the recent Carling saga and the previous occasion that a Grand Slam-winning England captain, Bill Beaumont, fell foul of the nebulous guidelines with the publishing of his autobiography. But it is in style as much as beliefs that Hallett differs from Wood. While Wood was never comfortable in the company of the players, a relationship which grew so sour that he was ignored when touring with the team in South Africa last year, Hallett has gone out of his way to meet them, has asked for meetings with the senior players and with Brian Moore, in particular, has a keen dialogue.

Hallett does not officially leave his old job in the Navy until November, but by then he hopes to have rung the changes, the key one, of course, ensuring that the dialogue pays off and that the leading players sign RFU contracts. Further to that, he hopes to have guidelines for future European competition in place, to have put his 56 RFU co-members through training courses ("We've got to sell ourselves a hell of a lot better") and to have banned the expression he hears and hates most at Twickenham, "this great game of ours" ("It smacks of old school tie, it's almost military and it's not our game anyway").

That Hallett should have a problem with things military is surprising since he has been in the Navy since he left school in Ipswich. His rugby career saw him captain the Navy side, and, at its peak, represent the Southern Counties against the touring sides of Australia and South Africa in 1967 and 1969. Besides being an accomplished, if narrow-shouldered, No 8, he is remembered also for an unusual running style - "He ran just like a woman with his legs at the wrong angles," an old Navy team-mate recalled - and for a habit of arriving late for fixtures because of a problem with public transport timetables. This reputation he sustained late in his veteran career with the Richmond Heavies when he was called away before one match because, Navy chiefs explained to him on the telephone, "someone had invaded South Georgia". Four weeks later, Argentine activity in the Atlantic had still not become public, his team-mates were doubting his commitment to the cause and, he says, "I was praying for something to get in the press about it."

Commitment is a factor that would not be doubted by Hallett's wife, Faith, who records her life as a "rugby widow" (widow, in that you never see your husband if he plays rugby) in an amusing column in the the programme of the annual Army v Navy match. "It's surprising how many men want to 'put something back into the game'," she writes (1988 programme), complaining of her husband's dedication, having hung up his boots, to administering the game instead.

When running Navy rugby, he turned round the club's dire financial situation and, "totally modernised the whole structure", according to Captain Mike Pearey, a former RNRU chairman who himself went on to occupy a senior seat in the RFU. It is, however, as chairman of the RFU grounds committee - in other words, as the man who rebuilt Twickenham - that he has made an indelible mark, as his wife records (1992 programme): "My elusive husband now likes to be known as a Builder of Grandstands (the rest of the family can't cope with such an imposing title and call him Bog for short. He, on the other hand, would like to be known as Boss - Builder of Superstands, but you can guess what sort of response that elicited)."

The rebuilding of three sides of Twickenham, however, was never the one- phase plan that it now appears to have been and Hallett's part in making it so should not be underestimated. Indeed, it seemed the RFU might falter just three months into the building of the first new (north) stand. Terry Ward, the architect, was presenting his plans for the new East Stand and explained that to meet the required capacity, the highest stand would have to be 100 feet off the ground, higher than any other stadium in Britain. "That was quite a sobering moment for the committee," Ward said, "and I can remember it being a momentous decision." It was then, however, that Hallett made his point: "We're big men. We're doing a big job. Let's go for it."

"It's really been his drive that has got us to where we are today," Ward said. "I continually get calls from the resident engineers saying 'Captain Hallett's on site again, crawling around the steel roofing and asking about this, that or whatever'."

However, as Hallett has said himself with the crisis over the future of the game looming ever larger, what is the point in having such a playground if you have lost the players who can fill it? Thus, just as Dudley Wood built a sterling reputation for himself only to founder on the professionalism issue, so Hallett could be made to look the fool - an unemployed fool, even - if, having barely started the job, his diplomacy was to fail and the players were to be seen instead swinging on Kerry Packer's gold-plated trapeze.

Hallett has a vision for the game and it makes good sense. Some 60 top players would have contracts with the RFU worth around pounds 35,000. They would get every opportunity to play and train and, in addition, benefit from enormous welfare treatment: for instance, extended periods to study (five rather than three years for a degree) and a network of part-time employment (optional, of course) in whatever field was requested so that players would have careers to go to when they come out of the game. The Courage League would, meanwhile, be slimlined so that the top four (or so) clubs would play in an international, rather than national, club competition.

Hallett is by no means immovable. He is prepared to forsake this vision to appease the players but knows that, financially, he can never match his apparent competitors. Which means that his much- admired communication skills will have to be at their sharpest when he returns from France and enters the forum. When he was whisked away from his game for the Richmond Heavies all those years ago, he found himself as a secretary to the Falklands War Cabinet. After months' negotiating the future of England with Margaret Thatcher, he should be well placed to do the same with Carling, Moore and Co.

Comments