'We're a mess. We could not cycle up the garden path without falling off'

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The Independent Online

"I'm tougher than I look," said John Steele a few days ago, when asked whether his brief stint as chief executive of the Rugby Football Union might be nearing its end.

He spoke with an air of confidence and authority befitting a Sandhurst-trained Royal Artillery officer who had been considered good enough to play outside-half for England's second team, had coached Northampton to a European title, enjoyed a successful five-year tour of duty running UK Sport and spent seven months looking serious illness square in the eye – he contracted throat cancer in 2005 – and staring it down. Yet as he discovered late on Thursday night, tough is never enough when it comes to staying alive in the Twickenham snakepit.

There is no more dysfunctional governing body in world sport than the RFU. Professional boxing is, by the union's standard, a beacon of enlightened management. The Football Association? A well-oiled machine. Fifa? A veritable garden of Eden. Sixteen years ago, Will Carling caused a stink by expressing the view that the union was run by "57 old farts". That smell gradually subsided, only to be replaced by something infinitely more noxious.

If Steele made the mistake of appearing indecisive in framing and re-framing the terms of reference for the job of performance director, his more serious error was to get on the wrong side of Martyn Thomas, the long-serving RFU chairman. Thomas has always been good company over a bottle of red – a "clubbable" sort, you might say – but as a rugby powerbroker, he has a ruthless streak the width of the Old Cabbage Patch itself. Not for nothing has he earned himself the nickname "Putin".

Yesterday, Thomas gave a confusing account of the circumstances surrounding these damaging events. After reminding his audience of the rigorous process undertaken in recruiting Steele – Thomas himself chaired the appointments panel – and reiterating the union's wholehearted support for his "vision", he said: "We hold our hands up. We got it wrong and we have to improve what we do. This is not a great day; the last month or two has not been good for the union and life could be better. But there were 10 people in the board meeting and we all felt at the end of the debate that we had no choice."

So what did Steele do to make the board turn on him with such ferocity? Thomas insisted that the severance deal between employer and employee prevented him going into detail. "My hands are tied, I have no choice," he commented, before adding: "I don't want to criticise John, other than to say he was unable to deliver what we sought."

But the whole of rugby knows that one of the things Thomas and his allies were seeking was Woodward's name on a new contract of employment at Twickenham. More than once in recent months, the chairman voiced his impatience at the failure to recruit the World Cup-winning coach, and after Steele diluted the remit of the performance directorship in readvertising the post – a move that might well have make the job unattractive to Woodward – the solids hit the air-conditioning. When Woodward duly ruled himself out of contention, the RFU board made sure it was Steele who was showered with you-know-what.

In one way, Thomas is hoist on his own petard. By driving through the appointment of Martin Johnson as England manager in 2008 – a non-coaching manager, rather than a hands-on coach blessed with managerial skills – he unwittingly obviated the need for a big-name performance director like Woodward. With his position at the head of red-rose affairs strengthened by recent Six Nations success, Johnson feels he has earned the right to continue running it his way, rather than kowtow to someone else.

It is, even by RFU standards, a mess: a five-course meal of the canine variety. "We are," said one utterly exasperated council member yesterday, "a bloody laughing stock. Again. So much for the four-year cycle leading into 2015. We couldn't cycle up the garden path without falling off." Nicely put, and entirely accurate. The amateur era may have ended a decade and a half ago, but amateur hour is still with us.