Rugby union: Cotton reopens hostilities

Paul Trow reports on a dispute already threatening rugby's recent truce
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The Independent Online
The Rugby Football Union's top brass have come to the rescue just when events on the pitch were threatening to kick the sport's politics off the back pages.

Originally, the special general meeting of the RFU at the NEC in Birmingham on Sunday was destined to be a low-key affair with England's 2,000 or so clubs nodding through a number of rule changes and redefinitions in line with the once-amateur game's conversion into a multimillion pound business.

After a year dominated by disputes with their senior clubs and the other home unions, it seemed that peace had broken out within the RFU's ranks with everyone at last pulling in roughly the same direction.

But now another unholy row is about to erupt. The executive committee's proposals call for the full committee to be renamed the RFU Council, the 20-man executive committee to be replaced by a 12-strong board of management, the position of secretary to be restyled as chief executive, and the executive committee chairman to become the non-executive chairman of the board of management. These are all presented as changes recommended by reports commissioned from Coopers & Lybrand and a committee headed by the former chairman of Acas, Sir Pat Lowry.

However, Fran Cotton, the manager of this summer's Lions tour and a supporter of Cliff Brittle, the controversial chairman of the executive committee, is refusing to go quietly along with the plan. Cotton, a member of the full RFU committee, believes a fast one is being pulled over the proposed roles of the chief executive and chairman.

"Lowry recommended that the position of secretary should be abolished and replaced by a chief executive whose role will be materially different. Instead, the meeting will be given the impression that the job is the same but with a different title. The other suggestion is that the chairman would no longer be an officer of the union. He would not be elected by or accountable to the membership. This is an attempt to disenfranchise the membership and remove the democratic process."

Cotton says that within five years the RFU could have a capital value of pounds 1bn and should be streamlined along the lines of a public company with a chairman and chief executive who are accountable to shareholders at the annual general meeting. The chief executive would be selected by a panel including three people with a proven business track record outside rugby.

"This is not an attack on Tony Hallett [the RFU secretary]," Cotton insists. "He is free like everyone else to apply for the position and everyone would be 100 per cent happy if he came through the selection process. But it's essential we get the best man for the job."

While agreeing with the need to run the RFU as the big business it has already become, the executive committee argue that Cotton's blueprint is not democratic enough. John Morten, who was also on the Lowry committee, said: "That means the chairman is only accountable on one day of the year. What about the other 364 days? We want him to account for his actions at least five times a year."

The executive committee deny they have deviated from Lowry's recommendations and warn that a vote for the Cotton plan is "a vote to split the game".

Both sides insist publicly that personalities are not an issue, but this is clearly not so. Brittle, who was elected at a similar meeting a year ago, was blamed by the senior clubs for the length and tedium of the now- resolved spat with the RFU, while he in turn felt the executive committee and possibly Hallett were undermining his authority.

Now Brittle has found an unlikely ally in Nigel Wray, Saracens' paymaster and the new controller of Nottingham Forest. "There is a huge amount of money coming into rugby and it has an amazing potential but I don't know of any successful corporation which is run by a committee," said Wray. "It's crucial we get the right structure into the game."

Worthy objectives, but not really the point. Morten gave the game away when he complained of Brittle: "He can't manage people and he can't make decisions. We don't want a guy like that given to us as God."