Rugby Union: Game running out of control

Chris Rea says questions over union's direction remain unanswered
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The Independent Online
THE question we must ask is, why now? Why is it that the Rugby Football Union have only now decided to commission an independent inquiry into the running of their affairs? Twelve months ago Cliff Brittle, chairman of the executive, a man portrayed by his committee colleagues as a ravenously ambitious oddball, called for a full inquiry but found no one prepared to listen to him, let alone support him. The call was repeated three months ago by Fran Cotton, but the response was the same. What does that tell us, I wonder?

It is just possible, of course, that the newspaper article which appeared a couple of weeks ago alleging a series of misdeeds and deceptions at headquarters over the past year, precipitated the call for an investigation. There is another possibility, equally appealing to those of a cynical nature. It is a fair assessment that an inquiry of this nature, demanding detailed and precise information, will take at least six months to complete and despite the fact that an interim report is due before the annual meeting in July, it will not be anywhere near completion and will therefore have reached no meaningful conclusion.

The preliminary report produced by Yorkshire's Roy Manock, exonerating everyone at Twickenham from the president to the teaboy's gerbil doesn't even begin to scratch the surface. As for Bob Rogers, who has been put up by the committee as the unity candidate to stand against Brittle, where has he been when the rank and file needed a champion? His idea of unity is to rid the union of the meddlesome Brittle and return to the status quo.

As this unseemly struggle to the death continues to plague the game and tear apart the RFU, rendering them even less effective as a ruling body than they already are, a report last week on the future of football outside the Premiership very probably went unnoticed. Yet it should be required reading for all those involved in the embryonic stages of professionalism in rugby union. Put in the starkest terms, football below the top tier is bankrupt. It is, to quote Deloitte Touche, the authors of the report, withering on the vine and, with accumulated debts of over pounds 45m, facing extinction.

Even so, the latest news from the meetings held between the club chairmen to discuss this sorry state of affairs, is that the principal recommendations made in the report should be ignored. It is, as someone famously remarked, a case of the small-minded sitting side by side with the short-sighted.

Rugby, unfortunately, is populated by the similarly disadvantaged and for those who persist in telling us what a glorious season this has been and how magnificently the leading clubs have coped with the twin mountains of professionalism and a grievously dividing governing body, let me tell them that the combined debt of the 24 top clubs in England for this one season totals around pounds 15m. At least football has taken a good deal longer to accumulate its debt.

If that is the height of professionalism and efficiency then I have clearly been banking with the wrong outfit. The game is in a mess, lacking control and direction and bound by insane working practices. How on earth the RFU seriously believe that by renaming a number of key posts they can transform an organisation administering an amateur game into a sleek body fit to run a professional one beats me. Even if they did appoint a properly qualified chief executive and offered him a king's ransom it wouldn't make a whit of difference to the running of the union for the very good reason that the entire structure is wholly inadequate for the purpose of running a multi-million-pound business.

The irony of this sorry affair is that one of the few men at present within the union who has a coherent vision of what the structure should be is Brittle. It is, of course, sadly typical that instead of self-examination in the aftermath of the Daily Telegraph's revelations, the RFU set off on a witch hunt to find whoever leaked the material.

The fact is that not one of the charges laid against the union has been satisfactorily answered. Apart from the veto clause in the BSkyB deal, which was most certainly omitted from the Heads of Agreement, there has been no attempt to answer the other points concerning Sky's control over scheduling of England's matches, their right of approval over new competitions proposed by the RFU, their terrestrial partner, the doctoring of minutes or the damage done to relations with the other unions as a result of the negotiations with Sky.

For this scribe at least the quality of the rugby this season, although a vast improvement on past years, has been rather less riveting than many would have us believe, although Brive's display in the Heineken Cup final in Cardiff was sublime and will remain a vividly joyous memory for a long time to come. It undoubtedly knocked the stuffing out of Leicester, who might have had a more profitable end to the season had they concentrated more on the positive aspects of Brive's play and accepted that on the day few in the world could have beaten them, rather than dwell on the negative elements of their own performance. Whatever the reasons for their spectacular dip in form it was sad to see this fine club fall so far below the standards they had set earlier in the season when the exuberance and invention of their glorious past illuminated so much of their play.

A Triple Crown carries much less status than it did a decade or so ago and for England it was a meagre return from what they hoped would be a triumphant season. It wasn't, and the disappointing fact is that they won the Triple Crown, creating record scores in all three matches, without having to play consistently well. Jack Rowell, bless him, escaped the criticism that should have come his way but there is no escaping the fact that he was well wide of the mark with his pre-Christmas selections and is still a long way from producing a style of play capable of giving England a fighting chance against the world's most powerful nations.

All power to Sale for making a little go such a long way and for proving once again that irrepressible spirit and bloody-minded determination add up to more than the sum of transient glamour and the chequebook.

Yet the abiding image of the season was the photograph of Derek Morgan, the RFU committee member, standing underneath that road sign which depicts problems ahead on the day that the England players, with the full support of the clubs' organisation, had boycotted a national squad session. Nothing could have brought more sharply into focus the confusion and incompetence of the game's governing body in England. Well worth the pounds 20,000 a month fee to the RFU's public relations agency, wouldn't you say?