Johnson remains in limbo after RFU removes Thomas

Key positions, including that of England manager, undecided as acting CEO of governing body ousted

The stripping of all his Rugby Football Union roles from Martyn Thomas, the charismatic administrator who became too powerful for some in English rugby's liking, has nudged the RFU only a short distance nearer the presumed objectives of peace and understanding and an improvement in England's fortunes.

Four crucial positions remain undecided including that of Martin Johnson, whose contract as England manager is up on 31 December, and the choices of each will determine the course taken by the national team for years to come.

The announcement of a new permanent chief executive of the RFU is due in mid-December – Thomas had been the acting CEO since 29 June, following the controversial sacking of John Steele nine months into the job. Then there is the vacant professional rugby director role some see as perfect for Sir Clive Woodward. And nominations are due now, too, to chair the RFU board of directors when the incumbent, Paul Murphy, becomes the union's president next July.

Until the axing of Steele in the summer the 67-year-old Thomas – a lawyer whose day job is running a farm in Carmarthenshire – had been RFU chairman for six years. His enthusiastic pacing of the corridors of power had made him one of England's two representatives on the International Rugby Board and Six Nations committee and a member of the board of European Rugby Cup Ltd, which runs the Heineken Cup.

Thomas will give up all those roles on 16 December, but perhaps most damagingly to his pride is that he will not now become the chairman of England Rugby 2015, the separate company charged with turning a profit from staging the World Cup in four years' time.

While Thomas was quoted in an RFU statement last night as saying: "I feel that now is the right time to spend more time with my family. As a result I have decided not to renew my contract at its conclusion in December", an inevitable by-product was the ditching of Fran Cotton's review into Johnson's three years as manager and the elite game generally.

It had been ordered by Thomas in knee-jerk fashion and without much wider consultation after the World Cup quarter-final defeat by France and it leaves the Professional Game Board's inquiry – that includes submissions from England players and the RFU operations director, Rob Andrew – to rule on whether to stick with Johnson, who has sat tight and said nothing since returning from New Zealand.

The Sports Minister, Hugh Robertson, was said to have approved of the Cotton inquiry, and Thomas may have been wary of full-blown Government intervention at the very time England wanted to be gearing up as the next World Cup hosts. But suspicions abounded – denied by Thomas – that Cotton was just a stalking horse who would recommend the return of Sir Clive to oversee England and the age-group teams.

Proving the adage that strong men make enemies, Thomas was also facing an independent QC's inquiry into whether he should face a disrepute charge for exceeding his powers in the firing of Steele. And it was reported in the last week that more than 100 clubs had threatened to call a special general meeting of the RFU unless Thomas went.

This followed the report on behalf of the RFU Council by the disciplinary officer Judge Jeff Blackett into Steele's sacking that concluded: "Thomas has given great service to the Union at significant personal cost... but he has almost reached a position where 'he is the Union'... We on the Council... have placed too much reliance on the shoulders of one man." Not any more.

Recruitment consultants Odgers Berndtson are leading the CEO search for a financial whizz with experience running "a FTSE 350 or significant private company". The RFU's chief financial officer, Stephen Brown, will cover any notice period served by the incomer.

Epitomising the "let's move on" mood, Murphy hailed yesterday's appointment of two non-executive directors – Miles Templeman, a former director general of the Institute of Directors, and the Tesco retail director Andrew Higginson – as demonstrating the RFU's "commitment to best practice and good corporate governance". But a London law firm, Slaughter and May, is to report soon on whether the union's governance system of amateur council and semi-professional board needs overhauling.

Meanwhile, the England loose forward James Haskell was one of the surprise inclusions in the Highlanders squad which was unveiled today for next year's Super 15 competition.

Haskell, 26, will join the franchise following a spell with his current club, the Ricoh Black Rams in Japan, before moving to Wasps at the end of the Super 15 season.


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