Rugby union: Rugby's new power house

This summer Fran Cotton has emerged as the most influential figure in his sport. Tim Glover spoke to him
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With Fran Cotton what you see is not necessarily what you get. What you see is a former prop forward, a breed more attuned to shifting pianos than playing them, and a jawline that looks as if it could understudy for Desperate Dan.

There is nothing desperate about Fran. Cotton (what a great name for a Lancastrian) sounds as homely and as basic as a hot pot or even cowpie. His success, however, in whatever field he seems to be playing, suggests more of a hot shot. Not only was he banned by the Rugby Football Union, giving him the focus to establish a successful business, but in recent months he has brilliantly managed the Lions to an unexpected series success over South Africa and followed that up with a resounding victory over the RFU. He seems equally adept at jaw jaw as war war. The upshot of Cotton's alliance with Cliff Brittle, the chairman of the RFU executive committee, is that the future of English rugby is in their hands.

Cotton's reward for standing in Brittle's corner with a knuckleduster when the fighting with the establishment reached its bloodiest stages is the title of vice-chairman (playing). The word playing shouldn't be in brackets it should be in three-foot high letters.

In his campaigns with Brittle and the Lions Cotton sees similarities; he backed the underdog. "Brittle was elected by the membership and key people in the RFU did everything possible to sideline him," Cotton said.

"They were unwilling to accept a democratic decision. I thought he was a good man, worthy of support. I wanted to help somebody who was on his own. What the RFU was doing was so wrong. They wouldn't give him a chance. Four months ago people thought I was crazy. The question asked was why should the Lions manager get involved and risk his personal credibility? There was no guarantee that Brittle would win but I believed in the cause. The opposition to Brittle was purely political.

"The RFU never forgave him for defeating their own candidate. The RFU was disunited and Brittle's position seemed impossible. It was the same thing with the Lions. Nobody gave us a chance. I can't remember one article that supported us."

In underestimating Brittle, and Cotton's influence in winning over the rank and file, the RFU managed to turn a silk purse into a cotton noose. They were defied at a series of special general meetings and when Cotton received a standing ovation at the AGM last month, the knot was tied. Brittle's election as chairman of the new management board became a formality as did the subsequent resignation of Tony Hallett, the former secretary and acting chief executive.

"My support for Brittle was not conditional," Cotton said. "I didn't want anything out of it."

Nevertheless, Brittle has given him huge clout in overseeing the strategic development of all England's national teams. Bill Beaumont, his England and Lancashire mucker, is chairman of the playing committee and their first role is to review the management of the England team. Jack Rowell's part-time contract expires at the end of the month and it would be a surprise if he is retained. It is clear that Jack's way is not Fran's way.

"We are not going to beat the southern hemisphere countries by beating them up for an hour and then playing a bit of rugby," Cotton said. "We have got to be switched on from first minute to last."

Jack's way was to select Phil de Glanville as England captain; Fran wouldn't even have him in the Lions party. Cotton's choice of Martin Johnson as the tour captain was also vindicated.

The post of England coach will almost certainly be full-time and Cotton and Beaumont are looking at no more than four candidates. The chances of an Englishman getting it are slim. An obvious front-runner is Ian McGeechan, the Lions and Northampton coach, whom Cotton worked with so well in South Africa. The attraction for McGeechan is that he would have a more realistic chance of winning the World Cup with England than with his native country, were Scotland to offer him the post.

"Ian's track record speaks for itself," Cotton said. "We are looking for the best. It is a massive job. New Zealand are about 20 points better than anybody else. To be world class you've got to be internationalised in your thinking. England have improved but we want to be the best and we are some way from that. The potential is enormous. If we really get it together we can frighten the pants off everybody. The southern hemisphere countries know this. It may take five years. There is no overnight solution but a process of continuous improvement.

"Organisation and planning, which allowed the management to focus purely on rugby, were the reasons for the Lions success. We also had a group of special players in terms of attitude. On any tour, six or seven don't come up to scratch. In this case every one played to their capabilities and often exceeded them. The four home unions provided us with the resources to make it a truly professional tour. We have to bring the same professionalism into England and that means recruiting people of the right quality. It's the beginning of the end of the political infighting and we need to appoint some hard-nosed successful businessmen."

Cotton could have been looking in the mirror of his board room at Atlantic Drive, Altrincham. He and another Lancashire likely lad, Steve Smith, started Cotton Traders 10 years ago with a small ad in a colour supplement. Today it has a turnover of pounds 22m. They were aware that there was a market for selling rugby jerseys to people other than players. They noticed something else.

"Everybody was producing international jerseys but the reward to the rugby unions was zero," Cotton said. "There was no copyright. By launching new designs we were able to ensure that people wore the genuine article and the royalties went to the unions."

Cotton Traders had contracts not only with England but Wales and South Africa. In 1990 they signed a 10-year deal with the RFU but in a few weeks time will sell the remainder of the contract to Nike for pounds 2m. "It should have been confidential," Cotton said "But Twickenham seems incapable of keeping anything quiet."

How much did Cotton pay for the contract seven years ago? "A lot less than Nike are paying now," Cotton replied. "People think that Fran and Smithy are putting pounds 1m into their back pockets. We have capitalised an asset and are putting it back into the business."

On the 1980 Lions tour to South Africa, Cotton collapsed and was told wrongly, that he'd had a heart attack. When they wheeled him into the hospital in Cape Town, still wearing his Lions tracksuit, he bumped into Dr Christian Barnard. "If you need a new heart, " the transplant pioneer told Cotton, "pop upstairs to see me."

It turned out that he had been attacked by a virus. "It was incredibly traumatic and I never felt the same about playing again. I realised there was more to life than rugby."

Seventeen years on and the former teacher of PE and maths, seemingly as high as an elephant's eye, is looking forward to a walking holiday in Sardinia.

"No" he said. "I never expected to find myself in this position. I've had a hell of a chequered career."

In 1981 he wrote his autobiography, Fran, and was banned by the RFU for 10 years for infringing his amateur status. Beaumont suffered the same fate.

"Until 1992 I couldn't get involved in rugby in any capacity" Cotton said. "I knew what I was doing but it became almost a matter of principle. I didn't hold a grudge. I got on with running a business."

In October he brings out another book, My Pride Of Lions. It will probably take pride of place in the RFU shop at Twickenham.