There is, just about, a difference between the Rugby Football Union and Fred Karno's Army, but only in the sense that the latter deliberately set out to be funny. Yesterday, the governing body's management board – which, to the best of anyone's knowledge, has never included either Charlie Chaplin or Stan Laurel, although rumours to the contrary continue to circulate – forced their chief executive, John Steele, into a humiliating U-turn on the sensitive subject of the Twickenham performance directorship. As a consequence, the union was left looking every bit as daft as it did during the civil wars of the mid-1990s.
Steele, in the job for less than a year, created the much-discussed post as part of a major shake-up and Sir Clive Woodward was immediately linked with it – partly because the World Cup-winning coach had frequently made private mention of his desire to return to the organisation he left in a fog of recrimination in 2004 and partly because Martyn Thomas, the RFU chairman, was a self-proclaimed supporter who had made it his mission to lure Woodward back to Twickenham.
When the performance directorship was advertised as an all-powerful position carrying ultimate responsibility for the affairs of the England team, Woodward let it be known that he was interested. That interest dwindled dramatically on Monday when Steele readvertised the position with a watered-down job description, specifically removing the national team from the successful candidate's remit. This was a hands-down victory for the England manager Martin Johnson who, unsurprisingly, was less than joyous at the prospect of having his style cramped by a rival big-shot.
Astonishingly, Thomas had no idea that the job description was being diluted to such a degree. Neither did Bill Beaumont, the former England captain, who will sit alongside the chairman and the chief executive on the appointment panel, if and when it ever meets. (Needless to say, this latest outbreak of black comedy has resulted in the interviews, scheduled for Monday, being postponed. They will not go ahead for at least a week.)
Thomas was left spluttering with anger and duly expressed his thoughts to Steele, with whom his relationship is now a long way short of harmonious. Yesterday's hastily-arranged board meeting went ahead even though six of the 13 members were unable to attend, and Steele lost out to a split decision, even though he had the backing of the professional staff present. As a consequence, he had no choice but to agree to revert to the original job description. Whether he survives this very public defeat remains to be seen.
Meanwhile, Woodward is said by his many supporters to be back in the frame, much to the chagrin of those RFU traditionalists who blanch at the very thought of him returning and upsetting the applecart. There again, he might decide that the governing body would struggle to run a whelk stall and stick to his current job at the British Olympic Association.