Rugby Union: Sacrificial lamb cannot quench thirst for blood

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The Independent Online
WHAT WAS intended as a run-of-the- mill meeting of the Rugby Football Union Council on Friday turned into an acrimonious spat. There was blood on the carpet at the end of it. John Jeavons-Fellows, the RFU representative on the International Rugby Board and one of England's longest-serving administrators, will not seek re-election as his country's representative on the IRB in July. The proposal that Francis Baron, the RFU's recently appointed chief executive, should replace him is certain to be contested by those who believe he lacks the necessary experience and is too confrontational. Jeavons-Fellows' impending departure poses a number of intriguing questions.

Is he, as many suspect, and quite a few whose heads are also on the chopping block earnestly hope, the single sacrificial lamb offered up to the international community in return for lasting peace and global goodwill towards the RFU? Or is he, as a number of cynics believe, planning to reinvent himself as the new chairman of the RFU Board of Management when, as seems increasingly likely, the post at present held by Brian Baister falls vacant in July?

It seems unthinkable that the man whose very initials are enough to cause apoplexy from Cork to Cairns, would be embraced by an electorate who considered him unacceptable for the job four years ago, when he was trounced by Cliff Brittle. But then nothing in the insane world of rugby union should surprise us and, within the council, that largely mindless and aimless body, Jeavons- Fellows no doubt enjoys a hard core of support.

Those who believe that his departure from the IRB will remove the biggest obstacle to the restoration of England's good name throughout the rugby world, are certain to be disappointed. For a while, admittedly, the RFU have been fooling enough of the people enough of the time, but no longer. So strong is the feeling against England's administrators that one sacrifice, no matter how large, will not be enough. Nor will it appease the Reform Group, who are sure to get the numbers they require within the next week or so to call the SGM planned for 28 March, at which they intend to bring a vote of no confidence in the board of management, the suspension of Baister and the removal of the two IRB representatives - one now that Jeavons- Fellows has decided to self-destruct.

The Reform Group have drawn great encouragement from the fact that the clubs who have rallied to their call are not restricted to those from the lower leagues, but include famous and influential names such as Moseley and Coventry. There is massive unease at the board's handling of recent events. Indeed, so concerned was Bill Beaumont about the accuracy of the minutes relating to the recent fallout with the Five Nations' committee, that he wrote to the president, Peter Trunkfield, requesting that they be altered.

The one piece of good news the management board were hoping for on Friday failed to materialise. Following the meeting between the Celtic countries and France the day before, the announcement of the English clubs' return to European competition under rules significantly more favourable to them would have been a boost. But discussions on this complex issue will continue for a while yet and the one certainty is that any European competition next season and for the foreseeable future, will be organised and governed not by the clubs but by the European Rugby Cup.

All of which weakens Baister's already tenuous hold on power. His letter to every member of the council just four days before Friday's meeting was a woeful example of negative inheritance syndrome. That sections of it were incomprehensible was perhaps excusable, but his attempts to blame all the RFU's troubles on the previous administration were pathetic. The serious issues which had confronted the Union in recent weeks, he wrote, reflected the "baggage" dumped on the RFU by Brittle's regime. How very convenient. But how remiss of Baister to overlook the fact that the impediments to progress during Brittle's troubled term of office were the same men who got rid of Brittle and who voted Baister into power. Not only has Baister retained that baggage, but he has added substantially to it and to England's present plight.

Suffice to say that, at a time when the RFU's standing is lower than ever and when the national and club game is being crushed by an unstoppable juggernaut of debt, Twickenham's two most newsworthy initiatives, circulated to the council last week, were the appointment of the first three full- time referees in the northern hemisphere and the design of a new corporate identity which "ensures that we remain ahead of many of our sports' governing bodies regarding the image of the RFU". Cloud cuckoo land or what?