English rugby’s leadership joined the roll call of sports bodies engulfed in managerial chaos following the sudden departure of the chief executive of the Rugby Football Union after only nine months in the job.
John Steele had left Twickenham with immediate effect, the RFU announced on Friday, after weeks of turmoil relating to a dispute inside the rugby headquarters over who would step into the new post of performance director.
Sir Clive Woodward, director of sport at the British Olympic Association and coach to England during its 2003 Rugby World Cup triumph, was tipped to fill the post, with some RFU committee members known to support him.
But with the World Cup due to start in three months, there was disagreement over whether Sir Clive would interfere with the best-laid plans of England team manager Martin Johnson – Sir Clive’s captain eight years ago.
Mr Steele last month won the agreement of the RFU board to change the job description, so that the role would focus on improving the performance of players up to, but not including, the senior England team. But two days later the board reversed that decision.
Sir Clive subsequently announced he was no longer interested in the job and would stay at the BOA. The RFU board decided to set up a review of how the recruitment of the performance director was handled and held a four-and-a-half hour emergency meeting on Thursday.
At the end of the meeting, Martyn Thomas, RFU board chairman, told Mr Steele his services were no longer required.
The fiasco has left the RFU joining the ranks of Fifa, the Football Association and FIA, the governing body of motor sport, in having to face down criticism over its governance.
Mr Thomas admitted that the saga had “done damage” to the RFU. But he said Mr Steele had been “unable to deliver what we sought him to deliver as chief executive”.
He denied Mr Steele’s sacking was related to Sir Clive. But he said there were issues about the way the recruitment process was handled, and other issues such as sponsors’ requirements.
Will Carling, the former England captain, who in 1995 was briefly relieved of the job for describing the committee of the RFU as “57 old farts”, said it was time to re-examine the way the body was run.
“I don’t think there are many organisations that would say that this one appointment is more important than the chief executive of the RFU,” he said.
“At some point, someone has to sit down, whether or not it’s within the RFU, and say: ‘We want to appoint professional employees to run the RFU, to make changes and take decisions ...’”
Malcolm Wall, outgoing chairman of Premiership club Harlequins, blamed poor governance for the RFU fiasco.
“If you’re the [RFU] head of finance you report to a chief executive and a finance committee which is staffed by woolly amateurs,” said Mr Wall.
“It is inappropriate in this day and age. There should be an independent inquiry into the governance of the RFU, just as there was for the FA.” The structural shortcomings of the RFU were “more likely to exacerbate any human failings”, he added.
Mr Steele could not be contacted for comment.
Mr Thomas, now acting chief executive, raised the possibility that there would not be a full-time replacement for Mr Steele.
Sir Clive Woodward: Cup-winning coach
Known for his radical approach to coaching, Sir Clive was the mastermind of England’s 2003 World Cup triumph. He then dabbled in football with Southampton, before joining the British Olympic Association as director of sport. The RFU’s disarray arises from the appointment of a performance director at Twickenham which Sir Clive was expected to fill, but which appeared to divide opinion at rugby HQ. He announced last month he was ending his interest in the role.
Martyn Thomas: RFU board chairman
Chairman of the RFU’s board of directors. Led the recruitment of John Steele as chief executive, but the performance director fiasco created tension between them.
The board approved changes to the job description in April, only to reverse them in May. It then set up a review of how the appointment came to be botched.
John Steele: Ex-RFU chief executive
Replaced Francis Baron as RFU chief executive in 2010, joining from the quango UK Sport. A former player and coach at Northampton, he was hoping to build participation and interest in rugby on the back of the 2015 World Cup, to be held in England.
Began his nine-month tenure with a structural reorganisation of Twickenham HQ, eliminating the post of director of elite rugby, held by former England international Rob Andrew.
Martin Johnson: Team manager
England’s 2003 World Cup captain under Sir Clive Woodward who became team manager of the national team in 2008 despite never having coached before. Has had mixed success but will lead the squad in this autumn’s World Cup in New Zealand.
The RFU has mishandled the issue of whether or not he reports to the performance director.