RFU looks to cleanse English rugby and leave disastrous World Cup behind

Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article titled “RFU looks to cleanse English rugby and leave disastrous World Cup behind” was written by Robert Kitson, for The Guardian on Tuesday 17th January 2012 20.41 UTC

Even the Rugby Football Union’s harshest critics concede it is finally showing welcome signs of cleansing itself but one or two bad old habits endure. To nobody’s huge surprise it has emerged that the “mole” responsible for the most damaging leak in the union’s history is unlikely ever to be publicly unmasked, with the Sherlock Holmes-esque investigation into the incident set to be quietly wound up.

The deliberate leaking and subsequent publication of damning confidential testimony supplied by England’s World Cup players in New Zealand caused a furore which continues to rumble and has tarnished the professional reputations of several individuals. Damian Hopley, the chief executive of the Rugby Players’ Association, described it as a “betrayal” of his members and “an absolute disgrace”, demanding the culprit be tracked down and punished appropriately.

That now seems a remote scenario as the RFU’s acting chief executive, Stephen Brown, hinted that the union did not have the hard evidence to justify naming and shaming the individual responsible. As a result, it seems the union are resigned to sweeping the matter under the carpet. “I could foresee a situation when it wouldn’t be appropriate to share that information,” conceded Brown, saying only that the investigating team were “close to a conclusion”.

Many within the game have their own private suspicions regarding the source of the leaks but the public clearly want the RFU to be as transparent and open as it can legally be, if only to help regain the trust of its stakeholders. This latter objective is crucial if the RFU wishes to move forward with alacrity once Ian Ritchie, its new chief executive, officially takes office on 27 February. The latter has negotiated an early release from a similar role with the All England Lawn Tennis Club and has also stood down as a non-executive director of the Football League and as a Wembley Stadium board member.

Ritchie, in fairness, will quickly spot a few fragile green shoots of recovery when he does complete his transfer from Wimbledon. The union has just announced its first sponsorship deal since their ill-fated World Cup campaign concluded, perhaps appropriately unveiling a four-year “strategic partnership” with the makers of Lucozade and Maximuscle, and says the commercial outlook is bright. Demand for debenture seat renewals is high and Sophie Goldschmidt, the RFU’s chief commercial officer, said no sponsors had jumped ship despite the negative headlines in New Zealand. “We’ve got to look to do things differently,” said Goldschmidt. “One thing we will not be is complacent. We want to differentiate ourselves from other governing bodies.”

The union’s self-confessed “rebuild plan” also includes strengthening the link between the elite and recreational games. Adult participation figures had dropped from 230,000 in 2008 to 170,000 in April 2011 but the union’s new community director, Steve Grainger, reported that the number of adults playing rugby at least once a week last October had risen slightly to almost 179,000. Efforts are now being made to encourage more schoolboy players to continue playing at university; figures suggest as many as 10,000 aged 18 or 19 cease playing rugby each year. “We’ve been pouring resources into a bucket that had holes in the bottom,” said Grainger. “Our priority is to fill up those holes.”

The charm offensive is the direct result of the RFU’s realisation that the fortunes of the grass-roots and elite games in England are intertwined. Replica shirt and ticket sales are dependent both on results and an instinctive bond with the national team which has frayed somewhat lately. “We’re trying to make sure that players, whether they are seven or 47, feel connected to what’s happened at the top end,” said Grainger.

Partly for that reason the word “elite” has mostly vanished from the titles of those at Twickenham who preside over the highest-profile areas of the game. This includes Rob Andrew, who now holds the title of professional rugby director and, along with everyone else at the RFU, is keen to distance himself from the events of recent months as swiftly as possible.

Given Andrew was at the heart of the largely flawed old Twickenham regime, there will remain those who struggle to understand how he can offer himself as an essential part of the solution. He did hold his hands up to a poor performance at a tense press conference in Auckland following England’s World Cup exit – “Not my finest hour” – and refer to “a pretty challenging last six months” but, despite everything, he will continue to be involved in the identification of Martin Johnson’s permanent successor as head coach. When it comes to digging in for the long haul, the former England fly-half could teach any mole a trick or two.

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