Rugby Union: Ominous shadow over Board game

Chris Rea fears there is a hidden agenda in Twickenham's latest battleground
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The Independent Online
ON THE very same day that the Poms were being given their biggest ever bashing in Brisbane, a footnote to England's humiliation, mysteriously leaked, listed the reasons why the Rugby Football Union Council had decided to put up a candidate to oppose Cliff Brittle as chairman of the Board of Management at next month's annual meeting. Among other things, it was claimed that Brittle was intransigent, impossible to work with and not up to the standard required. Coming from the men who had not only sanctioned what is turning out to be the bleakest episode in English rugby history but had, without Brittle's knowledge, organised it, this was a little bit rich.

No matter, a suitable candidate had been found. He is Brian Baister, a retired Deputy Chief Constable of Cheshire, a member of Chester Rugby Football Club and the immediate past chairman of the National Clubs Association. No problems there, except that he is not an elected member of the RFU but was co-opted on to the Council two years ago. Furthermore, at a recent meeting of the English Rugby Counties Association, Baister did not appear to grasp even the most fundamental points of rugby's future as a professional sport where television is God.

Baister's candidacy has raised further questions. When he was asked at the same meeting whether or not his candidacy was in any way being funded by England's leading clubs, he replied categorically that it was not. There is, however, a suggestion to the contrary: not only that the clubs are helping to finance Baister's campaign, but that they are assisting in the promotion of it.

After investigation, it turns out that his manifesto, circulated to the entire membership including members of the Council, with a personal letter attached, was sent out by Lowe Bell Communications, whose head man, Sir Tim Bell, was hired under Tony Hallett's stewardship as secretary to advise on the union's public relations strategy. That strategy, which appeared anti-Brittle and which cost in excess of pounds 350,000, caused such an outcry among the membership that Bell resigned, to be followed shortly afterwards by Hallett.

Now, it appears, both men are back in the picture. There are reports that Hallett has been appointed as chairman of the working party set up by the English First Division clubs to oversee their tactics in the build- up to the AGM on 19 July and that Michael Humphreys and Partners are being engaged in a supporting PR role. It is open to question therefore whether Baister's campaign is being supported financially by the top clubs and directed through Lowe Bell Communications. If not, why did Baister, like Brittle, not avail himself of the RFU's administrative machinery at Twickenham to circulate his manifesto?

The clubs' strategy document confirms that Baister should be the principal focus of their campaign, although it is fair to say that the clubs would support a sack of self-raising flour provided that it didn't have Brittle's name on it. Clearly, they regard Baister as a puppet who will dance to their tune and with the ineptitude which has accompanied all their recent actions the RFU are going along with it.

Their blind incompetence and determination to follow the destructive path taken by the clubs is in stark contrast to the signals coming last week from across the Channel where the French federation and their leading clubs have reached an agreement which will have long-term benefits from the French game. Above all it is aimed at strengthening the national side which is regarded, as it is in every other country, save England, as the single most important factor in the game's survival. The leading players will be contracted to the Federation for 12 months during the year and will be released to play in up to 10 internationals. Bernard Lappasset, the FFR president, whose term of office has been extended for another two years, was delighted with the result.

"We recognise the need for the primacy of the international game and with this agreement we can work towards the creation of the best possible national XV." Lappasset said. He is dismayed by what is happening to British touring teams in the southern hemisphere this summer. "People have to understand that unless we can produce competitive sides at the highest level the game in the northern hemisphere will die."

Why is it, in the name of all creation, that the RFU Council are incapable of grasping what is so glaringly obvious to the rest of the world? And for how much longer are the membership of the Rugby Football Union going to be dictated to by a handful of clubs hell-bent on destroying everything that has been built up over a century and a quarter in their ruinous pursuit of the unattainable?