Rugby union: how not to run a sport

Even by the impoverished standards of sports administrators, the RFU's botched attempts to oversee the move to professionalism have set new standards for incompetence, argues Steve Bale
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Tony Hallett has long since given up wondering what the next day will bring. Last year he actually felt modestly pleased with himself when he was appointed to succeed Dudley Wood, secretary of the Rugby Football Union, and it has been all downhill since then. At one and the same time English rugby has landed itself in internecine turmoil and the international doghouse.

As an exercise in incompetence, in how not to run a sport, England's reluctant attempt to come to terms with the start of professionalism, and with it the end of 120 years of history, would take some beating. These days Hallett, the most affable of fellows, is going round with a permanently haunted look, assailed inside and outside the RFU, inside and outside England.

If he now wished he had stayed in the Navy, he could be forgiven, since nothing he ever saw in the service could have prepared him for the ferocious politicisation of rugby that has accompanied professionalism. However it has done so, the RFU has succeeded in antagonising everyone.

Not content with the seismic internal split which may be about to lose it its most eminent clubs, it has now so antagonised the other home unions - which, let's face it, congenitally despise the English anyway - that it may be about to be kicked out of the Five Nations' Championship.

Yesterday the Welsh, Irish and Scots together announced they would reconsider the format of the championship - with the plain intention of finding a way of expelling the perfidious English for their brazen attempt to corner the lion's share of the next television contract. Lion's share? The Lions may be among the first victims.

Anyone who imagines this to be no more than a cross-border tiff about admittedly large sums of money - anything from pounds 130m to pounds 225m has been bandied about as the overall going rate - has a poor knowledge not only of rugby history but of history itself. Jack Rowell, the England manager, is fond of talking about the history that goes into Five Nations matches and when he does so he means Culloden and not the Calcutta Cup.

So the idea of putting the ineffably superior English in their place is older by a few centuries than rugby. But even within the specifically rugby context the RFU, by demanding a rise from 25 to 60 per cent of the proceeds from the joint home unions' television contract and then claiming everyone will be better off, is at the very least guilty of hubris in holding such a hostage to fortune.

To understand we need to go back to 1884 when a dispute between England and Scotland led to the formation in 1886 of the International Board as an arbitrator - without the RFU, which would not join on the basis of equal representation with Wales, Scotland and Ireland. It did not do so until 1890 when finally offered six members against two each for the other three.

The resentment, for this and other perceived indignities, lingers. In 1911 England voluntarily gave up two seats but it was 1948, when Australia, New Zealand and South Africa were graciously admitted with one member each, before English representation came down to that of their neighbours. France, by the way, had to wait until 1978.

It might have been thought that with a war on one front - against its big clubs - the last thing the RFU needed was to open a second front, though in fact the row over TV money was heralded two years ago when the RFU started negotiations in similar vein but eventually backed down under precisely the threat that yesterday became a reality.

It is also curious, even at a time when the need to pay for Twickenham makes it desperate to grub up all the money it can get, for the RFU make a virtue of going it alone from the other home unions at the same time as telling the clubs of the folly of going it alone from the RFU. Something here does not add up.

As for its local difficulties, it is totally bemusing that a body that at one time was known as the most decisive, businesslike and far-seeing in Europe should have turned itself into such an object of derision. To complain - as many have - that it was caught on the hop by the International Board's decision last August to abandon amateurism is a tired explanation and certainly not an excuse.

Let us look no further than the other side of the world. Whether or not the IB had permitted professionalism, the Wallabies, All Blacks and Springboks as well as the provincial structure underpinning them would have gone pro anyway, so when the IB made its fateful decision all of the above were immediately up, and in the case of the players running, passing but seldom kicking.

The result has been the dazzling Super 12-series, a Jaguar among competitions compared with the jalopy that passes for its nearest English equivalent. The clubs who are at loggerheads with the RFU may appear to want to do something about that, but sometimes you feel the mass membership of the union would like nothing better than to rid themselves of these same clubs and so of the awful taint of professionalism.

In the modern, multinational rugby world this is an utterly untenable position but in English rugby it would provide an explanation of sorts for the obstructiveness of which Cliff Brittle stands accused in his role as chairman of the RFU executive. One member of that executive has seriously suggested to me that there is a hidden agenda to oust the major clubs as a precisely similar purification exercise to that which entailed the departure of the northern clubs 101 years ago.

Whatever, it is no way to run a business - which is how the RFU and the top clubs are nowadays obliged to regard themselves. Hence the reason the clubs want more cash from the union and the union wants more cash from the home unions. The trouble is that the RFU is, to its very bootstraps, amateur; you had only to be at the two special general meetings in Birmingham to know this for certain.

Try translating that to the administration of a professional sport - and the Rugby Football Union is doing precisely that - and you are instantly in difficulty. However you look at it, rugby union's amateurs are making an unholy mess of professionalism.