Rugby Union: RFU sweep the board

Chris Rea reflects on a sea-change at Twickenham
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The Independent Online
BY FAR and away the most important news for the future of English rugby this weekend was not the threatened closure of Richmond or the announcement of the England squad to tour Australia but the changes made to the composition of the Rugby Football Union's board of management at Friday's meeting of the RFU council. It signals a significant change of direction for the game's governing body in England. Quite apart from the return of Fran Cotton to a position of influence at international and elite development levels, the almost complete removal of the old guard should help to repair much of the damage done during a lamentable year for the administration of English rugby.

Of the previous board members, only Bob Rogers and the chairman, Brian Baister, the chief recipient of Cotton's criticism in the past 12 months, remain. The appointment of Bill Beaumont as England's representative on the International Rugby Board, along with Malcolm Phillips, is also significant. Phillips was already on the IRB but it had been expected that Francis Baron, the RFU's chief executive, would win the nomination to fill the vacancy created by the decision of John Jeavons- Fellows to stand down. But Baron has not been conspicuously successful in building relationships with the other countries, especially with the Celts, and it was also felt that he lacked the necessary experience and understanding of the board's workings. Beaumont, on the other hand, is universally respected and will undoubtedly help to restore England's tarnished image around the world.

The other important decision taken at Friday's meeting was the appointment of Bristol's Eric Blackman as chairman of the Playing and Performance Committee. He will work closely with Cotton in developing the country's best young talent. Whether or not Cotton's return to the establishment fold will now remove the need for a Special General Meeting will be a matter for discussion by the Reform Group later this week. Three months ago Cotton called for an SGM in protest at what he described as the gross mismanagement of the union's affairs, and in particular their handling of the issues concerning the division of television monies which led to England's brief expulsion from the Five Nations' Championship in January. Cotton demanded a vote of no confidence in the management board and received support from almost 150 clubs, easily enough to call an SGM, which has been scheduled for 6 June. But, as a result of Friday's decision, there may no longer be the need for what would be a costly and disruptive exercise.

There are, however, a number of issues which still have to be resolved, not the least of which is the power and authority given to Baron, whose massive cost-cutting operation is considered by many within the union to be brutally indiscriminate. Prudent pruning with a view to building a healthy and prosperous future is one thing, gratuitous butchery is something else, and there are fears that Baron's policies, if they are allowed to continue unfettered, could create a wasteland at the all-important development levels of the game.

Another concern is the number of matches due to be played by the country's leading players in a season which has been extended well into June. It could be as many as 43, which is unacceptably high and is the result of too many snouts in a fast-draining trough. That much has been sadly confirmed during the past few days by the cull which is threatening Richmond's existence. Having increased the numbers in the Premiership to 14 last season in order to satisfy their short-term needs, the clubs now appear to be turning savagely on their own. And to think that these were the same men who, a few weeks ago, were demanding to run the entire game.