Rugby Union: Brittle brandishes new broom

Paul Trow says the victor of rugby's war is keen to move swiftly
Click to follow
The Independent Online
There was no blood on the carpet and most of the vitriol was reserved for a rival newspaper. But the annual general meeting of the Rugby Football Union at the Hilton Hotel, in London, on Friday night was hardly the Synod of Whitby.

Ostensibly it was an unequivocal triumph for Cliff Brittle, whose chairmanship of the executive committee, known now as the management board, has brought new meaning to words like "embattled" and "beleaguered". Brittle routed Twickenham's preferred candidate, Bob Rogers, by 599 votes to 357 to keep the post he has held for 18 months while another ballot resolved by a margin of 534-340 that the position of chief executive, held by Tony Hallett on trial until 31 October, should be advertised nationally and determined by a five-strong selection panel.

After his victory, Brittle took to the podium, promised "I will not let you down" and announced briskly that "in the interests of unity some changes have to be made quickly". Just how quick took most people by surprise. He wanted to call an emergency meeting of the council, formerly the full committee, for yesterday morning. "He wants the resignations of all those who haven't supported him in the past," muttered one insider darkly.

Eventually, Brittle accepted that even he could not rearrange 60 men's weekends at a moment's notice and settled instead for trying to find a date next week. "We must meet then because I've got certain plans to discuss with them," said Brittle. "The obstacles and impediments of the last 18 months have to stop. I don't see my re-election as a personal success. It's a success for the membership and the game in general." Rogers, who said the election was "about style and management", pledged his commitment to disbanding the "feuding factions".

Key speakers in the debate were Fran Cotton, who received a standing ovation in recognition of his achievements as manager of the Lions in South Africa, and the former England captain Will Carling. After being elected to the council, Cotton claimed the outgoing president John Richardson's denial that last year's meeting was misled over the BSkyB deal meant he was branding the leaders of Welsh, Irish and Scottish rugby liars.

His dander up, Cotton then declared: "Thank God for Cliff Brittle. I've just come from South Africa where, if you're doing well against the opposition, oranges come on the field. Same here. Tough negotiations, complaints from the opposition." Ironically, Cotton then complained about "the most vitriolic propaganda campaign in the Union's history, funded by pounds 300,000 from you, the membership".

Carling, who had arrived on a motorbike, raised a laugh when he introduced himself with the words: "My name is Will Carling. I'm an ex-player." Carling may have retired from the international scene, but as far as Harlequins are aware he is still available for club duties. The one-time scourge of Twickenham's "old farts" then endorsed Rogers, the committeeman with whom the England squad sparred most during the final years of flatulent amateurism, on the grounds that "I've never seen anyone annoy Brian Moore so much".

He also expressed his own annoyance with Brittle who "came to talk to the England squad in my last year as captain. He said he wanted to be my friend and then made remarks about my personal life. I've never seen the man again. The views expressed in the media recently have been thoroughly tedious but I would say to Fran something about stones and glass houses because it's been going on on both sides."

The new president Peter Brook, no stranger to mediating fierce contests as a former international referee, displayed a sure touch and ensured that no speaker, not even the formidable Air Chief Marshall Sir Michael Stear, exceeded his alloted time. "I anticipated a difficult meeting and I was pleasantly surprised by the atmosphere in the room," he said. "Everybody there had the good of rugby at heart."

This conincided with Hallett's assessment of his own contribution since being appointed secretary two years ago. "The truth is I was selected by a headhunting team for the job of chief executive," he said. "There's no difference in my position so if you wish to advertise it because it's changed it hasn't. If it's because I'm not good enough then that's another matter. I have stood up for what I believed you wanted and the committee must decide my future. That's where I stand, gentlemen, and I will continue to do my best for the game."

On whether Jack Rowell would continue as England's manager after his contract expires on 31 August, Derrick Morgan, the former chairman of selectors, confirmed that a recommendation would be made by the national playing committee at the end of this month. Whoever is named, whether it is Rowell, Auckland's Graham Henry or someone else, will be appointed until after the 1999 World Cup.

The remaining paranoia was reserved for discussion about expenditure - specifically pounds 550,000 on legal fees, pounds 20,000 a month for public relations advice from Sir Tim Bell and untold amounts on the improbably named Project X, a secret room for entertainment at Twickenham which, according to one member, even half the committee knew nothing about.