Baron set to win power struggle with Twickenham old guard

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The Independent Online

The position of Francis Baron, the chief executive of the Rugby Football Union and the target of a poisonous campaign of destabilisation by disaffected elements on Twickenham's conservative wing, appears to have strengthened following a meeting of the union's management board yesterday.

Baron received a unanimous vote of confidence and was further encouraged by a move to draft two full-time directors and close colleagues, Terry Burwell and Paul Vaughan, on to the main decision-making body.

Twickenham has had more than its share of internal political upheavals since the game became open after the 1995 World Cup, and this latest outbreak was greeted by a deafening yawn from rugby's man in the street. But there was a serious aspect to it, as documents relating to attempts to oust Baron from his post were leaked by as yet unidentified figures close to the management board, raising the prospect of another damaging conflict between the RFU's executive arm and those from the voluntary sector who feel disenfranchised by the professionalisation of the game in England.

In a statement released last night, the management board effectively offered Baron a public apology. "We have been horrified and appalled by the leaks of selected documents and very much regret that the culprits have not yet been identified," the board said, following the reading and discussion of a report by Commodore Jeff Blackett, the RFU's disciplinary officer, who investigated the affair. "We deeply regret the distress caused to Francis Baron and his family as a result of these leaks. We acknowledge that mistakes have been made and that harm has been done to volunteer-professional relationships."

For his part, Baron said: "I am pleased we have taken clear decisions to address all the issues emanating from this unnecessary and unpleasant incident. The game in England has never been stronger. We are ranked No 1 in the world, we have paid off all our debt and we have £23m cash in the bank."

Burwell, the RFU's community rugby and operations director, and Vaughan, the commercial director, must wait for their co-option to be ratified by the 54-man RFU Council, which has been known to throw the odd spanner in the works.

But assuming the recommendation is accepted - the rejection of the unanimous will of the management board would have obvious constitutional ramifications - the two men will have full voting powers on the management board. Commodore Blackett plans to issue his own statement on the affair today.

Back in the more agreeable world of rugby as it is played on the pitch, the England coach, Clive Woodward, was suitably guarded in his response to the latest torment afflicting South Africa, who conceded four tries in struggling to overcome a low-quality Free State Cheetahs side in Bloemfontein on Tuesday night. The Boks, operating under the cloud of a racism scandal that will not be investigated until after the World Cup, are also concerned about a knee injury suffered by their exciting new centre, Gcobani Bobo, during the game.

"I'm blocking their problems out of my mind," said Woodward, whose side face the Boks in an important World Cup pool match in Perth on 18 October. "All I know is that when negative things happen, they can be a source of strength and help players bond together. I have no doubt that the Springboks will be a real force in this tournament."

Agustin Pichot, the former Bristol scrum-half now playing club rugby in France, has been confirmed as captain of the Argentina team following the withdrawal of the injured centre Lisandro Arbizu.

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