These are dismal days for English rugby. England’s abject World Cup failure in New Zealand, a campaign more striking for off-the-field indiscipline and underhand tactics than the team’s inglorious quarter-final exit, is just one of a number of items to be examined at the Rugby Football Union’s board meeting today.
“The game has huge issues from top to bottom, whether it’s discipline in the England team to participation in clubs’ fourth XVs,” says John Inverdale, the BBC’s rugby presenter and chairman of his local club, Esher RFC.
The most immediate issue is Martin Johnson, England coach since 2007. He looks likely to survive. But the RFU, responsible for organising the 2015 World Cup in England, looks ill-equipped to tackle a chronic leadership crisis.
There is no permanent chief executive or performance director and more than 100 clubs are said to be in open revolt against Martyn Thomas, the acting chief executive who is also the chairman of Rugby World Cup 2015, the tournament’s organising body.
Several aficionados see him as the main source of the deep distrust and rancour now embedded in the English rugby hierarchy. During a summer of internal bloodletting that led to the sacking in June of John Steele as chief executive after only nine months in post, Mr Thomas was forced to stand down as chairman but held on to power by assuming the chief executive position, at least on a temporary basis.
“To have this void of leadership is a disgrace,” says Mr Inverdale. “There is a huge danger of Rome burning while everybody else fiddles. Who is in charge and what are their motives? Because the good of the game is all that matters, not the self-aggrandisement of some individuals.”
Mr Steele’s sacking related to the fiasco over who should be performance director. Mr Thomas denied he angled for Sir Clive Woodward, director of sport at the British Olympic Association who coached England to 2003 World Cup triumph.
Mr Thomas ordered a report into the sacking from Judge Jeff Blackett, RFU chief disciplinary officer, which said governance at the top of the union was “broken” and recommended Mr Thomas and most of the board stand down and seek re-election. Its publication was delayed because Mr Thomas threatened a defamation action. The board stayed in place.
Mr Thomas has survived two votes of no confidence at the RFU Council but is awaiting a QC’s independent report that will determine whether he faces disciplinary proceedings arising from the Blackett report.
It is one of four continuing inquiries into English rugby. Two relate to England’s disastrous World Cup campaign, while another is by law firm Slaughter and May into the RFU’s governance.
Mr Thomas says the problems are exaggerated. “They are not as bad as I think they are portrayed,” he says.
He scoffs at the idea that more than 100 clubs wanted a special general meeting to oust him and says the RFU was in the process of recruiting a permanent chief executive. As for today’s meeting, he says the only big topic is the World Cup debacle.
“The performance on the field was not acceptable, the performance off the field wasn’t acceptable,” says Mr Thomas.
None of this has escaped Hugh Robertson, the sports minister, who is on a crusade to beef up sports governance. His call for independent non-executive directors on the RFU board has seen two names being put forward: Andrew Higginson, a former Tesco director, and Miles Templeman, former director-general of the Institute of Directors.
“The minister has been clear he wants sports governing bodies to have the best possible governance structures in place and that includes the RFU,” says the Department for Culture, Media and Sport.