RFU blush over black shirts

Twickenham's plan for new England change jersey provokes anger from World Cup hosts New Zealand
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The Independent Online

A bad week for English rugby culminated yesterday in angry New Zealand fans launching a Facebook page entitled "Get our Gear off", in protest at Martin Johnson's team using a black alternative kit at the forthcoming World Cup.

Twickenham was beginning to regain some form of equilibrium after last Sunday's angry annual meeting of the Rugby Football Union when the new storm broke. RFU officials, fearing that the use of black would rile supporters of the real All Blacks, had gained the approval of their New Zealand counterparts, but it still looks like Johnson's team will be public enemy No 1 when they land in Auckland at the beginning of September.

One New Zealander said: "The Poms are trying to steal our heritage by having their rugby team swap to an all black strip. Not acceptable to us real All Black fans. Poms will not be welcomed in NZ for the RWC2011."

The criticism had been led on Friday by John Key, the New Zealand Prime Minister, who described Johnson's team as "wannabes."

"There's only one team that wears black with pride and that's the All Blacks," Key said, after hearing about England's plans to wear jersies that will include a Red Rose emblem surrounded by Maori symbols. Key's comments prompted a quick response from the RFU, who said the change jersey would only be used twice in the next few months. The first public showing will be in the World Cup warm-up against Wales on 6 August at Twickenham; the shirt will also be used in the first World Cup game, in Dunedin on 10 September, against Argentina.

RFU officials said the shirt, which replaces a jersey in a dark grey officially described as "anthracite", was needed because the traditional white shirt clashed with Wales and Argentina. Argentina wear pale blue and white stripes; Wales wear red.

A series of new shirts have been made by Nike and promoted by the RFU in recent seasons, including a purple alternative shirt and a vivid orange – or "tequila sunrise" – jersey for the sevens squad. All have proved very popular with fans, contributing to the RFU's annual merchandise turnover of £4-£5 million.

At last Sunday's annual meeting, officials made no secret of the union's financial needs. The loss of autumn Tests due to the World Cup will leave Twickenham £18m to £20m down.

Stephen Brown, the RFU's new chief operating officer, said that the RFU had planned for such income swings and that the union had recently gained a "triple A" credit rating. No official, however, could give the RFU's governance such a high rating. Indeed, the annual meeting followed a council gathering which had ended in the RFU disciplinary officer, Jeff Blackett, threatening to resign.

Blackett was angered by the council's decision to ignore his report on the chaotic management of the union over the year since the retirement of the former chief executive Francis Baron. The dismissal of Baron's successor, John Steele, was one reason why Blackett had set up an inquiry into the union's governance.

Blackett announced on Friday night that he would not resign. He must now decide whether to stand for the RFU chairmanship at an election that is likely to be held after the World Cup in late October. The vacancy, caused by the resignation of Martyn Thomas at last Sunday's meeting, is set to attract contenders including Middlesex's Rob Udwin and Ian Metcalfe, a Birmingham solicitor.

"I believe the council and the RFU are now at a very important crossroads," Blackett said. His report had called for Thomas to stand down as acting chief executive.

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