"It's not as bad as it looks"
Rob Wildman
July 11, 2011
Martyn Thomas, chairman of the RFU Management Board, RFU & Premier Rugby Press Conference, Twickenham, England, November 15, 2007
Former RFU chairman Martyn Thomas will still head up the company charged with delivering Rugby World Cup 2015 © Getty Images

A top table of Rugby Football Union's best grimaced when the inevitable question came from a small group of grass root men who had bothered to attend the annual meeting of the world's biggest union on Sunday.

"Can someone tell us just what is going on?" asked Cornwall's Alan Mitchell who politely added that there was "general disgust" among fellow followers in the activities of the RFU over the past 12 months.

Backed up by Rosslyn Park's Bob Evans claiming the RFU had erected a "wall of secrecy" the duo managed to gain some explanations about the events that has held up the Union to general ridicule.

Mitchell, clearly worried by the squandering of RFU funds, gained the acknowledgment from the officials that they had spent well over £2 million since January in paying off staff and hiring an assortment of head hunters and management consultants.

John Steele, whose departure as chief executive last month triggered this latest off-field ruck, is set to gain around a year's pay (estimated at around £300,000) for his short-lived tenure which started last September following the retirement of long-serving Francis Baron.

Martyn Thomas, the other key individual in the union's management over the past 12 months, had to choose his words carefully, glancing at legal officer Karena Vleck for nods of approval.

"It's not as bad as it looks," Thomas insisted after a splurge of media headlines had highlighted his own role in an affair that has left him acting chief executive following his decision to resign as chairman.

Thomas, who started out as a champion of grass roots rugby and has evolved into a combative character on a world stage, attempted to explain that the flawed appointment of Steele had not surprised head hunters.

"One leading head hunter told me last week that he reckoned to get only 50 per cent of appointments right," Thomas told delegates with a characteristic laugh at his own misfortune.

Overall, Thomas pleaded that it was not all "doom and gloom." He beckoned finance chief Stephen Brown on to the stage to help appease the small group of representatives who had been kept waiting for more than an hour while Council members had prolonged an emergency meeting called to sort out the RFU's troubled management.

Thomas later told reporters: "It is a good story, not a bad one. I apologise for the appointment of John Steele but we did everything by the book and the panel found there was nothing more we could have done. No one can be happy or proud when a person leaves in the manner that John did and we could have handled things better."

He now faces the biggest test of his time in rugby politics to keep Twickenham on the straight and narrow in the coming months until a full-time replacement for Steele is found.

Quite how a former lawyer and farmer has become such a powerful figure is testimony to his stamina for all things rugby and his "hands-on" work since he was elected chairman in 2005.

Alongside the equally combative Baron, he became a 'good cop' in a double act which ensured Twickenham made millions as the professional game - a constant cause of friction since the game went pro in 1996 - settled down.

But this latest fall out has been detonated inside Twickenham. When Baron retired last summer, Thomas intended to stay for a further 12 months to help ease Steele into the role as replacement chief executive.

That plan started to unravel last autumn when Thomas began to doubt Steele's acumen. Despite the fears, he backed the new chief executive's restructuring plans to replace the existing management team. It sent shockwaves through the RFU staff who began to fear that a bigger cull was being planned.

When Steele backed away from the appointment of Sir Clive Woodward as performance director the duo's relationship worsened eventually ending in Thomas gaining the backing of the RFU's management board to part company.

Thomas provided another light moment when he cheerfully conceded, following another question from the floor, that he would not be involved in the recruitment of a full-time successor to Steele. That task has gone to Board member Ian Metcalfe.

Thomas' own future looks to be assured. After he steps down as acting chief executive early next year he will take up his appointment, made last summer, to be chairman of the company to run Rugby World Cup 2015 which will be staged in England and Wales.

A decade or so ago Thomas was the activist at Twickenham meetings backed by his campaign for 'honesty, openness and integrity.' He may argue the point, but some things have not changed in RFU politics.

Mitchell, the Cornwall county secretary, said he was far from happy by the answers he had received. "We only get a small picture of what's going on," he conceded afterwards.

"Somehow we feel Twickenham is becoming more and more distant and dominated by the professional game." Similar comments could have been attributed to Thomas during his march to the top.

© ESPN Sports Media Ltd.

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