Thomas quits to plunge RFU into further turmoil

Damaged chairman steps down after humiliating review of last month's sacking of John Steele
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The Independent Online

Martyn Thomas resigned as Rugby Football Union chairman yesterday as the sport's governing body teetered ever closer to the edge of the abyss.

With less than nine weeks before Martin Johnson's England take part in the World Cup in New Zealand, the RFU has no permanent chairman, no permanent chief executive and is still searching for the performance director it appears convinced it needs.

The RFU's 58-man council met at Twickenham yesterday at 8am, and spent four painful hours studying the internal review from their disciplinary officer, Judge Jeff Blackett, who headed a five-man investigative panel into the sacking of former chief executive John Steele last month.

By the time they had finished reading, Thomas agreed not to stand for another term as chairman at the annual general meeting that followed immediately afterwards – and at which he had been expected to be re-elected. Instead, his RFU board were left humiliated by Blackett's damning criticisms.

Thomas said: "There are criticisms and that's fine. Some of them I don't have a problem with, but I would want to put my point through to the panel at some stage over others. I regret the situation which occurred with John Steele. None of us can be happy that a senior employee of the union left in the circumstances he did. We did everything by the book. "

An RFU spokesman added: "At the Council meeting there was wide debate on the recommendations, and as a result of those, a copy of the Blackett report will not be made public, but an executive summary will be made available by the panel in a timely fashion." But the very fact that Twickenham refused to release the report, as originally promised, supports the inside information that Blackett called for Thomas to resign, along with nine of his board members. He also virtually exonerates Steele, who, Thomas claimed, had lost the confidence of the board.

A vote of no confidence in the board was defeated only by a majority verdict, while Thomas clung on to his role as acting chief executive following dissent from the floor.

Blackett said: "We are glad council received the report in the spirit it was delivered. The panel worked tirelessly over the last three weeks to gather a huge amount of evidence, and we felt our recommendations were valid and appropriate based on that evidence.

"As guardians of the game, council had some important decisions to take, and discussions were robust and emotive in that regard. I hope that as a game we can now draw a line under the events of the past few months and get on with rugby."

It has to be embarrassing when you hire an independent powerhouse such as Blackett to investigate a shambolic series of events, only to be told that your operational methods, in polite parlance, are less than impressive.

Blackett's 52-page document, the result of three weeks of intense research, included interviewing 65 key figures during their ruthless search for the truth behind the appointment and sacking of Steele, who was in his post for only nine months.

The verdict is that Thomas – who was elected chairman of the RFU board of directors in April 2005 – and non- executive members should stand down immediately from the board, with the exception of RFU business operations director, Paul Vaughan, and co-opted member, former England and Lions captain and International Rugby Board vice-chairman Bill Beaumont. The board cling on, then, but there is much more for the council to digest and deliberate upon before this mess is finally resolved.

Paul Murphy (Oxfordshire) will serve as interim RFU chairman pending an SGM. However, regulations stipulate that such a meeting cannot be held until 60 days after the AGM.

The deterioration at Twickenham began with the resignation of former head coach Clive Woodward in 2004. This whole performance director issue began then, when former chief executive Francis Baron made it clear he did not want Woodward handed such power. Baron worked wonders restoring the RFU's financial fortunes, but the national team's form dipped during that time. Andy Robinson and Brian Ashton came and went as national head coaches, and when Martin Johnson took over in 2008, he took until last year's summer tour to convince that he was on top of the job.

Meanwhile, the newly appointed elite rugby director Rob Andrew embarked on an ultimately successful series of negotiations with the Premiership clubs that settled the club versus country battles that had scarred the previous decades. His reward for this was to be axed from his role and forced to re-apply for another one if he wished to stay inside Twickenham.

Still this troublesome performance director issue dragged on, and when Steele decided to downgrade its relevance to England Saxons and all points below, the effluent met the fan.

There was a strong belief inside the RFU that Johnson decided he did not need someone above him having just won the Six Nations – a sentiment backed by Andrew – and that Steele took the decision he did following some political "ear-bending".

But the decision was quickly overturned – the public announcement of which left much to be desired in terms of professionalism – thus wrecking Steele's authority and making the RFU a laughing stock. It was hardly surprising, therefore, that Woodward, for so long seen as the logical favourite for the role but absolutely determined not to apply for it for fear of rejection by his enemies within the RFU, publicly reaffirmed his commitment to the British Olympic Association.

The agenda

Paul Murphy, who was elected acting chairman of the RFU board, said: "We were concerned that the reputation of the RFU had been damaged by the recent events.

"After lengthy discussion, we have taken what we believe are the right decisions, difficult decisions, but in the end we felt we had to ensure everyone could see we had taken firm action to address the issues and move forward."

The following was agreed or accepted:

* Martyn Thomas withdrew his nomination for chairman of the board at the AGM.

* Paul Murphy, senior vice-president and Member for Oxfordshire, was elected interim chairman.

* A Special General Meeting will be convened soonest to elect a new chairman.

* The board members were given a majority vote of confidence by council to continue in their various roles

* Martyn Thomas's continuing as acting CEO was endorsed by council.

* Other recommendations on governance and confidentiality will be dealt with at future meetings.

Timeline: the twists and turns that turned Twickenham into a laughing stock



John Steele appointed as RFU chief executive, succeeding Francis Baron.


Steele embarks on what he called a "comprehensive review" of the RFU.



RFU management board approve Steele's shake-up plans, with a recruitment of performance, operations and development directors.


Rob Andrew, who had been elite rugby director, is made operations director, and Steve Grainger development director. Sir Clive Woodward is favourite for performance director.


RFU board approves job description changes to performance director role, downgrading it by removing from it oversight of the England team.

12 May

Job description decision is then reversed, which sparks a meeting between Steele and management board chairman Martyn Thomas.

19 May

Woodward withdraws from performance director process, underlining commitment to British Olympic Association.

25 May

Peter Baines, chairman of RFU's governance committee, leads review into the recruitment of performance director.

9 June

Steele resigns as chief executive after only nine months in charge following emergency board meeting.

15 June

RFU inquiry into Steele's exit begins. RFU disciplinary officer Jeff Blackett heads a five-man panel.

29 June

New RFU structure confirms Thomas to continue as acting chief executive, with Baines as board chairman.

10 July

RFU council members gather, amid reports Thomas will stand down.