Less than three months before England attempt to reclaim the sport's greatest prize on the hostile shores of New Zealand, the Rugby Football Union finds itself without a chief executive, without an ounce of credibility and, it seems, without a clue as to how a multi-million pound professional sports operation should be run in the modern age.
John Steele, the man brought to Twickenham a year ago to maximise red-rose chances of success at the home World Cup in 2015, failed to make it as far as the 2011 tournament, thanks to another of the governing body's vicious outbreaks of committee-room in-fighting.
If Steele's spell as CEO of the RFU was short, it was anything but sweet. Short and bitter would be more accurate. He was driven out on Thursday night, having incurred the wrath of Sir Clive Woodward's supporters on the union's management board for failing to appoint the World Cup-winning coach to the vacant post of performance director – a role Steele created as part of a wide-reaching restructuring of the Twickenham operation.
The news was announced to the full RFU council yesterday morning as they gathered for their end-of-season meeting. There was shock, much embarrassment and considerable anger among the membership, who considered postponing the business on the agenda until they had been given a thorough account of events by Martyn Thomas, the chairman of the management board, a strong backer of Woodward and the man most infuriated by Steele's "failure". As it turned out, Thomas agreed to address the council during the afternoon session, although RFU lawyers decided there could be no access to Steele.
Some members were tempted to table a motion of no confidence in the board, but after grilling Thomas for more than two hours, they settled for an independent inquiry into the events of the last five months. Judge Jeff Blackett, the union's chief disciplinary officer, has been charged with framing the terms of reference, but the investigatory work will be carried out by an individual unconnected with the governing body.
At the same time, Rob Andrew – the man who beat Woodward in the race to run the elite end of the English game in 2005 and recently took up a new post as director of rugby operations – will head a review of the performance directorship specification. This is quite an irony, given that when the post was initially created, it was seen as a slap in the face for Andrew. Two management board members, the former England captains Bill Beaumont and John Spencer, will participate in the review, as will two revered internationals of more recent vintage, Jason Leonard and Richard Hill.
The fall-out from Steele's sacking, which Twickenham insiders estimate will cost around £1.5m, also sees Thomas acting as interim chief executive. Already the most influential figure in red-rose rugby – the chairman is one of England's representatives on the International Rugby Board, sits on the Six Nations Committee and is preparing to take over the leadership of the company set up to organise the global gathering in 2015 – his power is now all-encompassing. Bernie Ecclestone, the main man in Formula One, is small beer by comparison.
Steele met his end after a four-and-a-half hour meeting. According to Thomas, all 10 management board members present voted for his sacking. The chairman refused to divulge details of the chief executive's wrongdoing, saying only that the board had acted on "information from members of staff, stakeholders and potential sponsors". He said it was "categorically not the case" that the non-appointment of Woodward was the reason behind the sacking, although he later remarked that "the issue was not in relation to Clive Woodward per se, but in relation to the process".
After Steele confirmed his restructuring plans in January, several appointments were made. Soon, the so-called "Woodward role" was the only one left unfilled, and when the job description was abruptly downgraded to remove any responsibility for the England senior team, there was uproar among the knight of the realm's supporters inside the union and his cheerleaders in the media. The terms were immediately upgraded again, but shortly after this readjustment, Woodward announced he had lost interest and would continue his job with the British Olympic Association.
And that appeared to be that. On 25 May, the RFU issued a statement reiterating its "full support for the organisational restructure undertaken by John Steele" and quoting Thomas as saying: "The board is united in its desire to draw a line under the events of the past weeks, learn the lessons and emerge stronger as a result." Thomas continued: "It is also important that recent events do not obscure the very positive progress we have taken under John Steele ... Our task now is to continue to support him."
Even by the lamentable standards of previous sporting chairmen and their "votes of confidence", this was a classic: 16 days later, Thomas and his colleagues decided they had no confidence in their chief executive.
These extraordinary events capped a bad week for the RFU, which lost its principal corporate backer, Investec, on Thursday. No performance director, no chief executive and no major sponsor...some achievement for the biggest governing body in world rugby and the self-appointed guardians of the sport's special spirit.