Rugby Union: Man overboard but RFU sails on

Paul Trow charts the events that led to the resignation of Tony Hallett
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The Independent Online
While not quite in the 952 for 6 class of sporting history, Tony Hallett's resignation as secretary of the Rugby Football Union last week could prove to be more than a mere footnote.

And after steering the English game through its choppiest two years this century, the 52-year-old former Royal Navy captain is entitled to be envious of the relatively calm waters which await his successor. When Hallett was named as Dudley Wood's heir apparent, in March 1995, he had already proved himself by masterminding the pounds 60m redevelopment of Twickenham. An RFU committee man for 16 years and a former chairman of Richmond, he was seen both as a safe pair of hands and the sort of forward thinker needed to take the game beyond that year's World Cup.

He soon had a taste of the acrimony to come when Will Carling was stripped of the England captaincy after the "old farts" affair. "There were two issues at the time," Hallett said this week. "The old farts business was the catalyst for a dispute with the players who were pushing for payment. And there was the problem of double-entry bookkeeping by clubs to hide perks for players, like cars."

Two other significant events also shaped Hallett's future. The first, less than a week after he took office in July 1995, was the death of Peter Bromage, the newly elected chairman of the executive committee. The other, a month later, was the International Board's abolition of amateurism.

"When the game went open we were five days away from a new season with no advice about what to do. We declared a moratorium to give ourselves breathing space. After Peter's death, I over-stretched myself. A chief executive should get involved in such things, but I didn't have enough backup at Twickenham."

In January 1996 Cliff Brittle beat the establishment candidate John Jeavons-Fellows in an election to succeed Bromage. Relations with the leading clubs then deteriorated as Brittle frustrated demands for a greater share of the RFU's sponsorship and TV money plus more control over their own competitions.

A whiff of breakaway was in the air by May 1996 at an eight-hour emergency meeting in London, yet the mediatory role played by Hallett, scuttling from room to room with proposals, amendments and rewordings, brought the antagonists together sufficiently to produce a truce. "We then all went off on our holidays but by September we weren't too sure what we'd agreed and the argument resurfaced," Hallett recalled. "This time the England players were used as pawns. They weren't allowed to attend training sessions and the clubs threatened to pull them out of internationals. But the players wanted to play for England and it was a mistake for the clubs to use them in that way. Ordinary rugby followers just got fed up with it all."

The future televising of the Five Nations was at the heart of the other serious row involving Hallett. In March 1996, BSkyB offered the RFU pounds 87.5m to screen internationals and other important matches as part of an overall five-year deal worth pounds 175m for the four home unions. "We tried to stall it because our partners wouldn't go along with it," he said. "But it was frustrating, as we have so many more mouths to feed in England."

This gave Brittle two gripes: that Hallett failed to notify him before last year's AGM that England had been threatened with expulsion from the Championship; and that Hallett was prepared to let Sky screen certain matches on a pay-per-view basis.

"We never received a formal expulsion order from the Five Nations," Hallett said. "And subsequent events proved that the principle of no pay-per-view had not been conceded. That will always be anathema to me."

Brittle, aided by the successful Lions manager Fran Cotton, revived both issues during his campaign for re-election at last month's AGM, and also called for the chief executive's post to be advertised. Hallett argued that he had in effect been appointed as a chief executive. In any case, his hard work was bearing fruit and he had lined up a raft of new sponsors, soon to be unveiled.

But his mood changed on holiday a few weeks later. "I realised the best chance of unity would be for me to go. The membership made their feelings clear at the AGM and whilst I'm sad to go with everything looking good at last, my main reason is to give the RFU a chance to settle down."

Peter Wheeler, Leicester's chief executive, voiced the doubts of many by saying: "Hallett's resignation gives cause for concern. He made a major contribution in keeping the game intact."

When the dust settles on Hallett's two years in the hot seat, though, the verdict may be that Twickenham wasn't big enough for both him and Brittle. Whether Brittle is big enough without the dignified Hallett on board remains to be seen.

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