RFU looks to grass roots for support

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The Independent Online
Just when you thought it was safe to go back to your favourite rugby ground in the expectation of watching an 80-minute game rather than an 80-hour committee debate, politics are back on the agenda with a vengeance.

Tomorrow, the Rugby Football Union holds a special general meeting at the National Exhibition Centre in Birmingham and as the venue is already playing host to the Crufts dog show, there is a distinct possibility that the entire sport will be certified as barking mad by the end of the afternoon.

The RFU, acutely aware of its own shortcomings during the transition to professionalism, will attempt to win widespread grass roots support for changes to its own management structure, which include the abolition of the posts of secretary and treasurer and the appointment of a chief executive. All fairly dry and straightforward? Not on your life.

As so often in the last year of communal backbiting, battle lines have been drawn around personalities rather than issues. The leading antagonists tomorrow will, once again, include Cliff Brittle, current executive chairman of the RFU and a constant thorn in the flesh of his own organisation, and Tony Hallett, the existing secretary who, if the governing body gets its way, would be the leading candidate to fill the new chief executive's role.

Hallett's opponents will insist that the chief executive post be advertised nationally and that the selection panel include the chairman of the newly constituted management board - who, if the rebels win the day, will be none other than Cliff Brittle. By the same yardstick, Brittle's chances of landing that chairmanship depend largely on the election procedure agreed tomorrow; the RFU wants the voting to be confined to its own committee members, who would almost certainly give their bete noir very short shrift indeed.

Should the rebel contingent, led by a handful of clubs from the North- west including Manchester, Wigan and Orrell, win their campaign to extend voting rights to the entire membership, Brittle could well remain at the centre of the decision-making process. Indeed, if all rebel amendments are carried, the new chairman would wield extraordinary individual power.

As a result, the RFU have mobilised some big guns in support. These include Lord MacLaurin, chairman of both the Sports Council and the English Cricket Board, and Will Carling, the former England captain. They also include Ian McGeechan, this year's Lions coach, who said yesterday: "I applaud Tony Hallett and the RFU Committee for their courage in this time of change. They should be supported."

Now that is an interesting one. McGeechan's stance is very different to the one taken by Fran Cotton, the Lions manager, who said earlier this week that the RFU had "shot themselves in the foot politically" and backed the move to advertise the chief executive's post. And Brittle? "Cliff Brittle is far more of a moderniser than people give him credit for; he believes in professionalism and doesn't want to hold it back, but he wants to see a properly funded grass roots game as well." Not much common ground there.

The Lions will have enough problems in South Africa this summer without political disagreements. But tomorrow's meeting runs far deeper than that; a heavy defeat for the RFU will open up old wounds and inevitably lead to a re-hardening of attitudes among the senior clubs. English rugby's fragile peace is paper thin and ructions in Birmingham could easily condemn us all to another year of bickering and create a whole new agenda: one with "Breakaway" stamped all over it.

n Sky Television has won the rights to the European Cup for the next five years. Including England internationals at Twickenham and the next three Lions tours, Sky will now broadcast around 80 games a season.