Richardson negotiates a minefield

Paul Trow talks to the new RFU president aiming to calm troubled waters
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The Independent Online
During his playing career as a prop forward, John Richardson may not have received too many hospital passes. But after engaging in a few front-row contests, he knows a challenge when he sees one.

And they don't come more demanding than the current assignment which faces the newly installed president of the Rugby Football Union, especially after the latest deadlock between England and the other home unions over the future of the Five Nations' Championship. This mild-mannered, 64-year- old Warwickshire solicitor, and grandfather, could be forgiven for feeling he has been plunged into a boiling cauldron. After all, not much is riding on his year in office - only the continued existence of the northern hemisphere's most prestigious tournament, the general good name of English rugby and the future financing of the game throughout the British Isles.

So did Richardson, an RFU committeeman for more than 20 years and a member of the executive since 1986, have any doubts about taking on a role which carries no monetary reward and requires the political adroitness of a Labour front-bencher, the patience of a London commuter and the diplo- matic skills of an Acas arbitrator? "I came into this with my eyes open," said Richardson, a former captain and president of Leamington, a grass- roots club now in Midlands Division One. "Having worked on the administration side of the sport for 30 years, and gone so far in that direction, you obviously take on the challenge if it is offered to you. I never had any doubts and I will do the best I can.

"The arrival of the open game and the problems over the Five Nations' television coverage make it a difficult time, but my duty is not only to the clubs and players at the top end of the game, but also to the vast majority for whom professionalism will never be an issue. Nevertheless, attitudes are changing at the grass roots, and the minor clubs are training much harder than they used to, probably because of the league system which we didn't have in my day. The results of some matches didn't matter quite as much as they do now."

In his day, Richardson was the archetypal rugby man in the archetypal rugby environment. His wife, Diana, helped out with the teas and has supported him throughout his ascent of the sport's administrative ladder. Even though he was never good enough as a player to scale the highest peaks - in those days neighbours Coventry were England's leading club - he was only deprived of a place in Warwickshire's first team by the likes of the England prop Phil Judd.

"I would like to have played at a higher level, but I suppose I got as far as I could given how little I used to train. But I love the game and the best administrators won't always have been the best players. However, it's great that former internationals like Jeff Probyn and Bill Beaumont have become involved because they can bring so much valuable experience to the table."

Richardson and his counterparts from the other three home unions gathered in Cardiff last week to try to clear up the furore surrounding the RFU's decision to abandon collective bargaining in favour of reaching their own pounds 87.5m deal with BSkyB for the English TV rights to the Five Nations for five years, from 1998. That meeting was inconclusive, with Wales, Scotland and Ireland sticking to their threat to kick England out of next season's championship. The navigational skills which Richardson acquired during national service as a Royal Navy minesweeping officer at the time of the Suez crisis will be invaluable as he charts the RFU's passage through troubled waters.

He is reluctant to comment on the television argument. "The situation is so delicate I don't want to say anything which might upset negotiations. But we have to find the way ahead for the home unions and France, and I am bringing the matter back for the RFU's executive committee to discuss in London on Wednesday. We've obviously got to talk to BSkyB as well."

Richardson, cast in a similar mediating role to his predecessor, Bill Bishop, has clear long-term goals. "In 12 months' time when I hand over to someone else, I hope the game will be much more settled in its administration. A good England team is of paramount importance because that influences everything. And I hope people's attitudes towards the game will be healthier.

"I would hope the structures are in place so we can all concentrate on playing and managing the game. That's why we do so much committee work, so that the playing side is right. We have pledged to support the senior clubs and we want to work with them, not separately. It's a waste of time and talent if we argue when our efforts ought to be directed towards managing the game and our clubs."

His own management skills have been applied over the years to the development of coaching, and youth and students' rugby. He believes that the counties and divisions still have an important part to play, and feels that relieving Jack Rowell of his administrative burdens so he can concentrate on his duties as head coach "will be greatly to England's benefit next season".

But is there going to be a next season for England? "If I wasn't optimistic, it wouldn't make much sense for me to be in the position I'm in," he insisted.