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RFU Meltdown

by Preeti Virdee

24th November 2011

AS I left Rugby Expo 2011 at England Rugby HQ, Twickenham on Wednesday 23rd November, 8 years and a day after England won the 2003 Rugby World Cup, parked next to my car was an RFU vehicle. It was probably the most poignant image I had seen all day, boasting the core values of the Rugby Football Union:


The thought that crossed my mind was “Well, at least there was an element of enjoyment down under for England Rugby.” With the overnight revelations in the respected British newspaper, The Times, there was little else remaining the RFU could claim to have upheld.

Three confidential reports were leaked to the broadsheet exposing the players, the management, the tactics employed - or not - to work, train, rest, play, the parameters set for behaviour, attitude, and what really happened behind the scenes in the shambles that resulted in England Rugby returning home after just the first round of the knock out stages of Rugby World 2011. The confidential interviews covered the problems that began in pre-RWC camp at the luxurious Pennyhill Spa in Surrey right through to the coach’s resignation last week. One player’s summation spoke volumes: “It wasn’t Johnno, it was that Johnno was surrounded by the wrong people.  I suppose we just wanted Johnno to have the bollocks to take action.” And this has rocked English Rugby to its core.

Martin Johnson | Mike Ford

Right from the outset of the media stories plastered all over the British press during RWC 2011, I defended the England Rugby players. And to a large degree, I still stand by what I said repeatedly, that rugby boys celebrating after a win, a vice captain out drinking with an old friend, a team bonding in the extreme sports capital of the world, bantering with staff, none of the above was detrimental…in isolation. Put it all together, add in fines for ferry jumping, sporting branded mouthguards, the preposterous match ball tampering by coaches, taking a not match-fit captain, leaving behind some of the best rugby talents in English rugby, putting up a wall of silence in front of the British press when Her Majesty The Queen’s grandson-in-law is in serious hot water, a captain allegedly more concerned with money than playing, and it is not looking so good for the England Elite squad. Finish it off with a poor performance in the quarter finals which saw the former RWC champions and finalists lose to France who sent them packing ­ -literally- and it appears that something may possibly be rotten in the state of Twickenham.

England Rugby Pennyhill Park

Back home, and the Blackett Report was finally distributed to the member clubs at the end of September which called for radical and wholesale changes at the top of the England Rugby food chain following the dismissal of CEO, John Steele. It was Steele who had tried to effect the same change, but was thrown out on his ear as soon as the Old Boys Club did not like what they saw happening to their cosy little world, led by Chairman Martyn Thomas.

The RFU again battened down the hatches, became as obstinate as they had ever been, making excuses for England’s performance, blaming the players, dishing out ludicrous fines, commissioning review after review. This was the same board that commissioned the Blackett Review before dismissing it - even threatening the authors with legal action if they published it. This was also the same board that leaked minutes of top level meetings to the press before said meetings had even occurred. How could these people be trusted.

England v Wales Twickenham 06 August 2011

If a tree is rotten at the core, it is impossible to for it to flourish at its extremities for any sustained period. Blaming the children when the parents are entirely irresponsible is simply folly. Telegraph journalist Brendan Gallagher put it quite eloquently: “How can (the) RFU expect players to behave like adults when they are so immature, incompetent, egotistical, grasping, (and) 'money focussed' themselves.

Now in case the happenings at Rugby HQ have passed you by, or you just require a recap, this is how it has ended up where the RFU has been exposed like cheap tart for the world to see.

The Professional Game Board (PGB) was to carry out the “most comprehensive review ever undertaken” following the unsuccessful World Cup campaign. The review would take into account three individual reports compiled by the Rugby Players’ Association (RPA), the RFU led by Mr Teflon “I have two jobs” Rob Andrew, and Premiership Rugby. The first had to be restructured from questionnaires into interviews since the players made it very clear that they did not trust the RFU not to use their comments against them as had previously happened. The players were assured of confidentiality and anonymity. The PGB were due to present their findings to the RFU Board on Wednesday 30th November. And of course it transpired that the players were absolutely right to be concerned.

Martyn Thomas RFU At the start of the month, the much overdue news came that Acting CEO, Martyn Thomas, previously chairman of the RFU, was to stand down from all rugby positions including relinquishing the chairmanship of England Rugby 2015, his directorship of European Rugby Cup Ltd., his seat on the International Rugby Board Council and Six Nations Committee. This is the man who though he worked hard, wielded far too much power, was responsible for the downfall of many a good man in the England set up, so frankly, it is about bloody time. Two new non-executive board members were appointed, both with extensive commercial experience, and not part of this Old Boys Club.

A fortnight later came the resignation of England Coach, Martin Johnson - a brilliant leader, and honest man, a genuine soul, and a person who should never have been put in that hallowed position in the first place with not an ounce of experience. Successfully managing players as their captain is one thing, as their coach is a whole different ball game. And Johnson never made that transition from ‘one of the boys’ to ‘bossman’ successfully. He surrounded himself with a coaching team he was most comfortable with, but unfortunately these men were devoid of ideas and were operating a decade behind the rest of the rugby world. Johnson then proceeded to appoint a man at the helm of the Chris Robshaw dropped by JohnnoEngland players who had never even captained his club side, Leicester Tigers; Lewis Moody, a good man, a good player - when he was match fit, which in recent years was not often, but no experience. The far superior Harlequins flanker, Chris Robshaw, who since the beginning of the season has captained his club side to 12 consecutive wins across the Aviva Premiership, LV= and Heineken  tournaments, was left at home, as was Northampton Saints’ Tom Wood, who was a vital element in England winning the Six Nations Championship earlier in the year whilst Moody was injured, again.

As all the second tier nations moved forward to catch up with the best in the world over the last six months, England appeared to moving backwards with no consistency, no continuity, no game plan, no direction and no attention to the minutiae of building a world class team. This was most tragic since Johnno had witnessed all of the above first hand under Rugby World Cup winning coach, Sir Clive Woodward, who also advised him not take the job 3 years ago.

Rob Andrew Martin Johnson RFU Resignation The RFU was already in shambles with no one at the helm for England, and Professional Rugby Director, Rob Andrew, who likely could not manage a p*** up in brewery (though he led the fateful 2008 New Zealand Tour, and ultimately was the man in charge when the England Elite were given the corporate credit card to go celebrate their win against Argentina this time round), continued to hide under his “I have many hats” excuse, refused to face the music, to take any responsibility, and categorically stated that he was "absolutely not considering resigning".

Seven days after the Johnson IED explosion, The Times published a front page, a back page, Graham Rowntree England Coachand a 6 page inside exposé of the leaked reports in their entirety on a nuclear scale. Someone, somewhere, who had access to all three reports from the RPA, the RFU and Premiership Rugby thought it would be a good idea to betray both the players and destroy the little integrity the Union had left on the world stage by handing over the entire complement to Mark Souster. By all accounts, Souster worked into the night to bring the rugby world the most damning blow to the RFU in history. And no one comes out looking pretty - save former Leicester and England prop and Assistant Coach, Graham ‘Wiggy’ Rowntree. “He was fantastic….He was the best of all the coaches. He’s ahead of his time,” stated one of team. 

The player interviews were far reaching, and the statements are a spectacular insight into the sad affair that was the England Elite right from the outset. There was quite obviously a huge rift at every level, with mistrust piercing every element of the tour, which flew against the team’s trademark that had run in the 18 months leading up to this point when they were successful: “Together, Relentless, Trusted”.

“Pre-season was a f***up.”

“We had no identity. We weren’t the best at anything and weren’t encouraged to be.”

“The man-management was absolutely terrible.”

“The coaches seemed to have the same blueprint for every game. Some coaches have no feel for the game.”

“The coaches really hate each other….(but) aren’t stupid. They all make sure they get on well with Johnno.”

“They’d had four years to develop a strategy and it felt like they were doing everything off the cuff.”

Brian SmithOn the coaches…Brian Smith
“He didn’t offer anything. The players had all the ideas… all he did was write…on the board....At one stage it was Ben Youngs who was coaching.”

…John Wells
“..pretty archaic…out of his depth.”

…Dave Alred
“We had kicking problems and yet almost every morning who do you see swanning around in a polo shirt about to play another round of golf but Alred.”

“The environment was a bit too jokey and disrespectful…There was a culture where it was not cool to train hard.”

“Too many players were chasing endorsements.”

“We had three months together in camp not drinking and we didn’t have one social going out for some beers. And yet the night before we fly to New Zealand, the RFU lay on a farewell party. Why are we being given the clear message it’s OK to get p***ed….Then to be told there was a tab for us after the Argentina game.”

Mike Tindall“As a group, we behaved like everyone should pander to our every need. At times we were mindless and reckless.”

“We were constantly on the back foot with the media…The minute the night out hit the papers, the media department hit the panic button and went into lockdown.”

“Ex-players started wading in when we know what they got up to in World Cups and it was worse than us.”

“It was a mistake not to have any security people like in 2003 and 2007. Then it was SAS guys, this time we had two old guys and one guy who was rumoured to have told someone the night-out incident would be worth £100,000 from a newspaper.”

But it was not just the players statements that were damning. The PRA report stated on Martin Johnson “There was a lack of action which reflected his inexperience. Therefore he must primarily bear considerably responsibility for these failures.” Well, yes. Johnno chose his coaching team, the squad, who was in or not; it was his party, but he just was not a very good event manager.

The England team almost did not turn up to the farewell dinner until they received commercial assurances. Money appeared to be the root of many evils. A view that many of us have long held since rugby turned professional and players no longer know anything but sponsorships, endorsements, free clothes, accessories, red carpets, flash cars etc. Most are recruited at school level, popped straight into an academy, are given vast amounts of money, have never done a day’s work outside of playing rugby, and most importantly, and very badly advised from a moral  and long term financial perspective. Money is great, but you do not have to be a d**k with it. And nothing in life is free. Slowly we are breeding squads of soccer players with none of the grounding from the Leonards, Moores, Bayfields and Deanos of old who worked hard, played hard, but they ‘got’ rugby: the discipline, the etiquette, the ethos. It appears now that at least some of today’s seniors are setting bad examples for the youngsters who want to make it the right way.

RWC 2015 So where does the RFU go from here? Is this monumental though not entirely surprising revelation really such a bad thing? Of course it is despicable that yet again there is person at board level responsible for leaking to the press, and in the process of forwarding his own agenda, has destroyed reputations of England boys who did not deserve to be betrayed in such a manner. But what should result is the fundamental shake up that is so long overdue at England HQ, and the RFU will have 4 years to lay the foundations and rebuild in preparation for Rugby World Cup 2015.

Possibly not what he was banking on, but there will be consequences for the rat on this sinking ship. The RFU’s chief disciplinary officer, HHJ Jeff Blackett has already put the wheels in motion to bring in an ex-Scotland Yard detective to head an independent enquiry into the leak, and will be dealt with appropriately.The primary suspect logically has to be one of the following members of the Professional Game Board who had access to all three reports, as is likely Martyn Thomas did too:

Professional Game BoardRFU: Rob Andrew [Exec Director], Stephen Brown [Board], John Spencer [Board], Jason Leonard
PREMIERSHIP RUGBY: Mark McCafferty [CEO], Quentin Smith [Chair], Peter Wheeler [Board & Leicester Tigers], Dave Thompson [Deputy Chair]
RPA: Damian Hopley [CEO], Will James [Chair]

With the consequences of this fallout, I would rule out the RPA, Geoff Irvine, and Jason Leonard completely. Due to the occurrence of previous leaks from the RFU Board, one would have to hedge one's bets that is more likely to have come from a source there. It would have to be someone who has nothing to lose, or is may be on his way out and wants to effect maximum damage. I shall leave you to ponder.

No doubt in time we shall find out.

A tragic shame it had to go this far, and the RFU will definitely not be posting a record increase in profits for the accounting year 2011-12 with sponsors and partners running for the hills. But roll on the new RFU, England Rugby and people qualified to carry out the jobs. Though with all the world class coaches distancing themselves from the England job one by one as if it has caught leprosy, let us hope they do not rush into hasty decisions but appoint an interim manager, and then get it right. Could you just imagine it…Sir Clive running the show a year from now, Dean Richards Director of Rugby, Brian Ashton as backs coach, the highly irritating but talented Austin Healey in the mix, a touch of Brian Moore thrown in for discipline, Dallaglio as a mentor, and we could we fit in Will Carling… (Will someone wake me up from my fantasy…quickly!)