A Rugby Life

A Rugby Volunteer's Blog

Back to Square One (the Rise and Fall of John Steele)

John-Steele-RFY-chief-exec_2499476On 9 June 2010 it was announced that John Steele had been appointed Chief Executive of the RFU to start three months later.  A year and a day further on, John and the RFU parted company.  This is my personal recollection of that period, my feelings about the past few weeks and my thoughts about the future.

The selection of the CEO was in the hands of the RFU Board with the RFU Council rightly excluded.  There have been so many leaks to the press that confidentiality would have been impossible.  After a long process which utilised one of the top recruitment firms in the country, Council was told that John Steele, CEO of UK Sport, had been appointed.

John’s rugby credentials were impeccable having started as a mini at Cambridge before going to Shelford, then playing for Northampton and playing for England A. He became Director of Rugby at Northampton and later Executive Director.  The fact that he gave up the chance of leading UK Sport into the London Olympics showed his commitment to rugby, however at the meeting where his appointment was announced there were questions about his commercial experience ability.

The previous CEO, Francis Baron, had turned around the RFU’s finances making it the wealthiest in the world and he would be a hard act to follow, but we were told that John Steele would assemble a team around him that would support those areas of perceived weakness.  This was accepted as the organisation needed to focus on the game having built such solid commercial foundations.

Sure enough, when John started in September he firmly put rugby at the centre of everything the RFU did.  His passion for the game was clear, as keen to see the grass-roots grow and flourish as he was to see England at the top of the world rankings.  He embarked on a series of visits to the counties to engage with clubs and came to Eastern Counties in October.

John unveiled his vision for the RFU and the game which everyone bought into.  It included a new management structure with three directors responsible for the game; Operations, Development and Performance.  The plan was to have an extensive recruitment process with all three to be appointed at the same time, so Rob Andrew was made Rugby Operations Director, Steve Grainger Rugby Development Director, but the High Performance Director post became the subject of speculation in the press, particularly after interviews for the post were cancelled at short notice, and it was ultimately John Steele’s downfall.

I can’t tell you what actually happened because only a handful of people really know.  You are better off going though the dozens of press articles linking Sir Clive Woodward with the post as they seem to have had access to information which Council Members like me were denied.  What is clear is that there were conversations between Sir Clive and the RFU although I am yet to find a Council Member who has said that they want him back.  Their view was much the same as mine – Sir Clive has had little tangible success since the World Cup win in 2003 and he would be impossible to manage.  However, speaking to grass-roots club players and members their opinion is more divided, with a significant proportion championing him as someone who had won the World Cup before and who could do it again.

For the past few weeks the whole situation was getting more and more farcical with the High Performance job description being changed at a Board meeting only for it to be changed back, the whole thing being played out in the national press.

I had three days of meeting at Twickenham on 8,9 and 10 June and I could feel the pressure ramping up the whole time.  An article in the Times on the Wednesday and another in the Telegraph on Thursday both predicted John Steele’s demise and at the meetings I was at there was an undercurrent of real concern about what was going to happen at Friday’s Council meeting.  The Board of Directors met at 8pm on Thursday and didn’t finish until after midnight.  The entrance to the Twickenham Marriott Hotel where we all stay is right by the main bar and those still up saw Board members go wordlessly straight to the lifts.  They met again at 8am and when I walked through the hotel foyer around 9am I was told by a colleague that John had gone – Steele had called him and some others earlier on.

tv crewAt the Council meeting, we were informed that John and the RFU had parted company and within minutes it was on Twitter (nothing to do with me!) and on the Daily Telegraph website within an hour, before the RFU’s official press release.  Chairman Martyn Thomas was in a meeting with John and their respective solicitors to agree terms so we would not hear the full story until after 2pm.  We carried on with the scheduled business of the day even though many of us were understandably distracted, and the knowledge there was a TV crew outside didn’t help.

After lunch we were addressed by Martyn Thomas to inform us what had happened.  Terms had been agreed with John Steele which included confidentiality clauses so naturally there will be parts of the story that may never come out.  First of all, Martyn apologised for getting the appointment wrong.  There had been a lengthy and extensive process but as chair of the selection panel Martyn felt that he should take responsibility for appointing someone that ultimately wasn’t the appropriate person to lead the Union.  Although the High Performance Director selection process had been a factor in John’s departure there were wider and deeper issues than that.  Martyn referred to some senior staff members approaching board members with concerns about how John was doing things and there was a perceived lack of engagement with sponsors and other stakeholders.  At the previous night’s meeting the Board of Directors unanimously agreed that John Steele should go.

Going forward, Martyn will act as Chief Executive until a new one is appointed.  That process probably won’t start for some time and it is unlikely anyone will be in post before 2012.  There will be an independent review of the events of the past couple of months and we will see if it comes up with any recommendations.  Council Members have been kept in the dark over a lot of issues lately and it may be that they will be consulted more often in future rather than just rubber-stamping decisions already taken by the Board.  There has been a good start in that four Council Members, all former internationals, have been asked to review the Performance Director role.  Bill, Beaumont, John Spencer, Richard Hill and Jason Leonard will work with Rob Andrew on the issue and report back in July.

John was a popular man both with staff and with Council Members.  He cared about the game and made excellent presentations where his passion came through.  However he wasn’t able to survive in the highly-charged political arena of Twickenham.  Fortunately, this is very unlikely to have any effect on the England squad as they prepare for the World Cup in September and we need to make sure the players and management have our complete support.


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