Martin Johnson and his fellow World Cup challengers will not spend too much time worrying about internal Rugby Football Union politics when they arrive in Australia next month, but they cannot be entirely happy in the knowledge that one or more people at the top of the game in England have been lying through their teeth.
Commodore Jeff Blackett, the union's disciplinary officer, yesterday submitted a 43-page report on the latest outbreak of factional argy-bargy at Twickenham, and pulled precious few punches in accusing unidentified members of the management board of dishonesty.
Blackett investigated a leak of documents concerning the activities of a group of non-executive board members, who met secretly at Heathrow last May to discuss the position of Francis Baron, the RFU chief executive. Subsequent newspaper reports were highly critical of Baron, who is now considering litigation. This week, Baron received a unanimous vote of confidence from the 12-man management board and saw his position strengthened by a move to co-opt two of his fellow full-time directors, Terry Burwell and Paul Vaughan.
Although Blackett was unable to pinpoint the source of the leak, he made no secret of his disgust at an episode that has caused fresh damage to the already fragile relationship between English rugby's voluntary sector and the Twickenham-based professional wing. He lambasted those who "acted maliciously in support of their own political aspirations, or in an attempt to discredit other elements of the game". He described this behaviour as "dishonourable", adding that it would no longer be tolerated.
"The RFU is a democratic organisation," Blackett continued. "Those who undertake this devious activity may purport to have honourable intentions, but in reality their actions are contemptible, particularly as they are not prepared to stand up and be counted. They know who they are, and they should examine their own consciences." Blackett said those who attended the meeting must now convince the wider RFU membership that they remained fit to represent them.
According to the report, Graeme Cattermole, the management board chairman, called the Heathrow meeting after hearing criticism of Baron's performance from RFU colleagues. (In doing so, he contravened an RFU protocol established in 1998.) He wrote an aide-mémoire, itemising the criticisms and concerns of his own, and circulated it to the gathering. He also asked Jonathan Dance, a management board member from Berkshire, to consult a firm of solicitors to establish the financial implications of terminating Baron's contract. The advice obtained by Dance was also circulated. Both documents were leaked, despite the fact that both Cattermole and Dance shredded the copies handed back to them at the end of the meeting.
"I accepted the testimony of both when they swore on oath that they did not disclose the papers," Blackett stated. "My conclusion is based on my assessment of both men formed during a significant period, although there remains the possibility that I have misjudged them.
"The most probable explanation is that one of the attendees did not return the papers when requested, left the meeting and subsequently allowed them to be placed in the public domain. They all told me under oath that they had not leaked the documents and this left me with the uncomfortable conclusion that one or more of them was probably lying."
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