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Twickenham under attack: Button for the nuclear option may be pressed

By Jeff Probyn

As the rest of the media catch up with the news that The Rugby Paper broke a couple of weeks ago re the report into the financial problems at the RFU, everyone has been trying to find the truth.

On one hand there is the ex-finance director Steve Brown, who took over as CEO from Ian Ritchie last summer, saying it is just a financial adjustment due to the current financial environment nationwide. While on the other is a report of fiscal madness by former CEO Francis Baron.

As with all arguments, there is always some truth on both sides. Brown is correct when he quotes the current financial difficulties and the fact the RFU has made only a £7m loss due in part to the limited games at Twickenham last year, plus the ongoing redevelopment of the stadium.

Meanwhile, Baron cites no due diligence when planning the redevelopment of the East Stand resulting in a massive overspend, big salary increases for all employees (including the players), and a rumoured £800,000 overspend on World Cup preparations.

All this leaves a £46m hole that will have to be repaid, he says.

The RFU have questioned Baron’s report based on the fact that he hasn’t been employed at the RFU since 2010. Although he did, however, put most of the current systems the RFU use in place, (including increasing the number of employees from 70 to 450), and he has used the RFU’s own accounts as the basis for his report.

Although the debate is still very much on-going in terms of what is the true picture, there can be no doubt the RFU are currently acting like the proverbial swan, gliding serenely along above water while all hell is breaking loose below.

As if to show how desperate the Union are to save even the smallest amounts of cash, attempts are currently being made to cut back on the ‘entitlements’ (tickets, travel and accommodation etc.) of council members and to the more limited entitlements of Privilege Members which has rightly met with strong resistance.

Once again, the RFU are adopting the ‘easy option’ of taking from the amateur game by suggesting cuts for council members as if they are ‘free loading’ off their positions! Most are amateurs who give up their time and money representing the grass-root clubs, using their entitlements to bring some of the many volunteers who run those clubs to Twickenham.

Privileged Membership is not given to all. This is reserved for people from the amateur game who have made an outstanding contribution for many years. Their entitlements are two tickets a game with a free lunch for one, so they have to buy the lunch for their wife or guest at a cost of £61.00.

This unfair penny pinching raid would save the Union a relatively small sum while at the same time undermining the fragile bridge that unites the game allowing council members to bring hard-working grassroots volunteers to Twickenham to watch the national side.

A far simpler way for the Union to save a few million pounds a year would be to reduce the amount they pay the players.

Put simply, the players automatically get much more money from their main employers, the clubs, and enhanced sponsorship earnings when they are picked for England.

So the question is: why is there a need to pay them an extra salary of around a quarter of a million pounds to play?

Report: Former RFU chief executive Francis Baron argues there has been poor management over the redevelopment of Twickenham’s East Stand (photo: Getty Images)

I also think it’s overly optimistic that Brown says the Union would be able to reduce payments to the Premiership should finances not improve when the next part of the player release deal starts in two years time.

The clubs own the players and the RFU need to have access to the players to fill Twickenham, and fulfil their contracts with the TV companies and sponsors.

Therefore, the RFU will have to pay what the Premiership demand, which will mean even more cuts to the grassroots game to fund the agreement over the next four-year period even at the present levels.

I think the the past presidents are more than aware of the circumstances currently surrounding the Union’s finances, which is why they commissioned Baron’s report.

The meeting between the RFU and the past presidents will be an attempt to curtail the damaging headlines created by the Baron report, and will probably be used to remind them that council approved the latest business plan in June.

However, council approval for the business plan was more or less just a rubber stamp duty, as the plan was drawn up by the professional staff at Twickenham and approved by the management board before going to council. This would make it virtually impossible for them to refuse approval.

The RFU council are now restricted to policy decisions which are not related to the business of the Union, as this is dealt with by the management board who work with the professional staff and report back to council.

The only way that the RFU council can hold the management board or professional game to account, is to call a Special General Meeting which can then openly debate any issues, find an answer, and take a vote.

With the RFU council not able to hold the management board to account except by a SGM, which for want of a better description, is the nuclear option, it begs the question: Is it now time to push the button?

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