Rugby Union: How the tide was turned: Geoffrey Nicholson meets Dudley Wood, the man who engineered a quiet revolution while Twickenham stands as a monument to power of the English game

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The Independent Online
THE most durable monument to Dudley Wood's term as secretary of the Rugby Football Union is plain to see in steel and concrete: Twickenham itself; its flyaway roofs, hospitality suites and Young England Club soft drinks bar; its shops and new self-service restaurant under the East stand; the acres of car park which will eventually smooth away the last traces of the contractors' presence.

Wood won't take much personal credit for this, or for other changes which have recently transformed the structure of the English game. 'I've not directed it, I've just been part of it in an advisory capacity,' is how he likes to put it. 'I am not a creative man, but other people are, and I can put their ideas into practice.'

Still, it is no coincidence that in the decade between his appointment in September 1986 and his retirement at 65 in the summer of '96, the RFU will have found pounds 60m to spend on increasing the ground capacity from 65,000 spectators, 18,000 of them standing, to 75,000, all seated.

Although private boxes have helped pay the bills, Wood's real ambitions for Twickenham are more populist. 'In the old days the gates weren't opened until noon. Now it is 11 o'clock. And despite some opposition from my staff, I will get it down to 10. People should be able to come here for a day out, as they do at the Open. Walk around, buy sports goods, books and videos from the shops, have a meal and a drink, meet their friends and, in a leisurely way, prepare for the afternoon's match. I want to make Twickenham more user-friendly.' Wood adds this wryly, but it is a key phrase.

Nor is it by chance that since Wood took office, the RFU itself, for long stuck in its ways and defensive in its dealings with press and public, should have become the most accessible of the home unions. 'When I was first shown around I discovered that the Twickenham number was ex-directory. I couldn't believe it.

And then to go into the ticket office and see them writing down ticket applications in a ledger] It came as a shock to someone who had been with ICI and knew things could be better done.'

Yet Wood's selection also implies that the RFU knew they needed a new broom. His immediate predecessors were a solicitor and a retired RAF officer; Wood was a marketing man. He had been with ICI since leaving Oxford, and was overseas manager for petrochemicals when the then president and others urged him to apply for the vacancy. He was reluctant - 'I thought it was too political for me, and I was right' - and sent in his successful application only at the final hour.

The popular image of Wood - with a home and 'a bit of land' at Saffron Walden where he keeps geese, ducks and chickens, and his wife Mary breeds golden retrievers - is of an urbane Macmillan-style Tory with a few reactionary views. On amateurism in particular. In fact he thinks of himself as 'pretty apolitical'.

The RFU certainly knew who and what they were getting. He had been around the game as a No 8 a long time: Oxford Blues in 1952-53; invitations to attend England trials though never called from the bench; spells with Bedford, Rosslyn Park, Waterloo and finally Streatham, where he played on into his late thirties. Then five years on the RFU committee, where he was typecast as Chairman of Amateur Status.

He was also in demand as an after-dinner speaker, and hasn't lost his sure touch. He drily told the Rugby Writers' dinner: 'I was having lunch with Pamela Bordes the other day and mentioned I was going to speak here. She said how sorry she felt for reporters. 'It must be awful to have editors breathing down your neck all the time.' '

Six months after becoming secretary, Wood introduced monthly press conferences at Twickenham in, as he put it at the time, 'the spirit of perestroika'. The reporters, used to squeezing blood out of stony officials, relished them. So too did Wood, who seemed willing to pick up any hot potato and run with it. 'I'm a man of views, and I'm prepared to stand up and argue those views, rightly or wrongly.'

The first provided particularly good copy. It fell on the Monday after the disastrous 1987 Wales-

England match, which had boiled into violence after only five minutes. England were held mainly to blame. Wood didn't hedge. 'I have spoken to both the chairman of the England selectors and the coach,' he said. 'And I have told them that this behaviour isn't acceptable.'

One outcome was the dropping of four England players, including the captain, Richard Hill. Another was to give the impression that Wood enjoyed an executive power unknown to any previous secretary. Not true, he says: 'I have taken a strong line over certain issues. But I am careful to do things only with the backing of the committee, which runs the Rugby Football Union, though certainly I have enjoyed their confidence.'

The one occasion when his unguarded candour brought him a bad press was after a lunch with sports editors at which he spoke 'in my usual jokey way' about the future of the sport and defended its amateur stance. Some remarks - not his own but quoting an official from another sport - were, he says, taken out of context as a racial comment. He wasn't challenged at the time, but next day the Mirror accused him and the game of racism.

'It was a very unpleasant experience, and it doesn't go away. And particularly nasty because we don't have anything resembling racism in the game. I would think every club in the land has players of different ethnic backgrounds. To be labelled like that hurts a bit. On other subjects I am not too fussed about being labelled a dinosaur or King Canute.' When this happens, it is invariably because he is bearing the battle- frayed flag of amateurism. He has three arguments against the game turning professional. First, and weakest he admits, there isn't the cash to pay players without cutting back on national schemes and club improvements. Secondly, the game is, and is meant to be, a recreation for those in full-time employment. Thirdly, it would deliver the game into the hands of professional interests.

'We do well with sponsorship, but I sit the sponsors down in the room and tell them we're delighted to have their money - but they do realise that it gives them no rights at all. We decide when and where we're going to play, and that's the basis on which we're going to work together. Actually they love being told that. I get no problems with it.'

The organisation of English rugby has changed out of all recognition during Wood's eight years. At one end a youth development programme with 40 local officers and a new training centre on Wolves' old practice ground. At the other an established competitive structure which has at last enabled the RFU to identify the big fish in its huge pool. 'It's meant that England are now a leading rugby nation, arguably among the best four in the world. Which is as good as I would ever want. I'm not one who believes you should win every match. Losing is sometimes good for you.'

(Photograph omitted)