Evening Standard

Ground force: John Steele knows that his main task is to transform English rugby from a world-beating business into a world-beating side. Image courtesy of The Evening Standard

England may struggle to beat the All Blacks on the pitch but, when it comes to making money, it is Twickenham that is the master and New Zealand very much the struggling pupil.

The Rugby Football Union’s results for 2009-10 show an income of £112million and profits of £25.8m. In contrast, the world’s best team — Saturday was their ninth successive Test win over England since a Martin Johnson-led victory in 2003 — earned £46m last year, yet made losses of £7.5m.

John Steele, the new chief executive of the RFU, has inherited the money- making empire that Francis Barron built during his 12 years in charge. It is hard to miss. As I arrive at Twickenham, I am escorted into a gleaming modernised stadium, with a Marriott-managed hotel, a megastore and hospitality boxes sponsored by household names.

Steele has said that he wants to put the game at the heart of his strategy. So does this mean he will reverse the Barron legacy: balance-sheet winners but recent playing failures?

“There are plenty of sporting examples that show money doesn’t equal performance success,” Steele tells me. “Francis did a terrific job in developing the business. Also, there was a World Cup win and another World Cup Final.

“Sides go through cycles and England peaked around 2003. That peak did cast a shadow over the immediate development of the next generation.

“And, after 2003, there were difficulties in terms of quite a high turnover in the coaching staff, through to 2008 when Johnno took over.

“This autumn will be a very hard test in terms of playing the top three nations in the world. We’ll come out the far side having a feel for whether we can actually compete with the best. I would like to be able say after that we performed in such a way that we’re in the mix.”

But, in Steele’s vision for the future, that mix does not include England winning the 2011 World Cup. Team manager Johnson may not agree but Steele argues: “We have to be realistic. What I am saying is, if you’re ranked sixth, which we are, you’ve got less chance than the five countries above you. We’ve had a tough few years.

“It’s going to be hard. But we’re on the upward trajectory and have a group of young players who are starting to learn their trade. Hopefully, they will peak by winning the 2015 World Cup.”

With that World Cup being held in England, Steele sees it as vital.

“We need to be able to sit here in 2016 and say we won the Webb Ellis Trophy and that revenues from the World Cup have been invested straight back into the game,” he says. “And because of the success of the tournament, we’ve held on to the traditional spike in numbers you get after the World Cup: more people playing and enjoying the game and learning to stay with it.”

This, admits Steele, is important because, although Twickenham was packed on Saturday with 82,500 fans, rugby does a poor job of holding on to youngsters attracted to the game.

The figures are so alarming that Steele feels the measurements may be wrong. The wider reason, he argues, is the change in culture and society compared to the time when this former fly-half started playing mini-rugby at the age of five, nearly four decades ago.

“The numbers are going in a southerly direction in terms of participation,” admits the 45-year-old. “In terms of 16 to 24-year-olds, there is a 70 per cent drop off between youth and adults. We’re working out whether we are measuring in the right way.

“In my days, there were sometimes drafty, old changing rooms, very muddy pitches. You just did it. The younger generation have more choice and, if it’s not a great quality experience, they’ll do some other sport, or something other than sport.

“We need to invest in facilities, coach development, referee development, supporting the volunteers. So, when someone goes to their local rugby club, everything’s fantastic, they enjoy it and they value the experience.”

Steele knows that he is trying to reverse rugby’s drop-out problem at the worst possible time. The spending cuts have made it even tougher as rugby will lose 15 per cent of the £8m in public money it gets with the major impact, says Steele, “coming in the four years from 2013 to 2017. This could affect things like floodlights, pitches and the women’s game”.

He adds: “We all know the challenge of the economy, these things impact on us as a business.

I have been talking to the sponsors and have a feel for the economic climate. It’s going to be tough commercially over next couple of years. Other home union nations are finding this in ticket sales and take-up.

“We need to think carefully about the competition structure at grass-roots level. Are we playing too much rugby? Is it in the right format?”

Steele, who both played for Northampton Saints as fly-half and coached them to the Heineken Cup in 2000, has been surprised how much rugby has changed in the five years he has been away running UK Sport. What has encouraged him since he took charge is the mood at the coalface of the game.

“It’s moved on quite a long way,” he says. “There isn’t enough money to satisfy everyone’s aspirations. We have to be smart in our investments to get the maximum benefit. The base of the pyramid is very healthy. We have a workforce of 60,000 volunteers who keep the game going: 2,000 plus clubs and two million-plus players.”

However, the realist in Steele knows that the oval ball will never take over from the round ball. The 2003 World Cup win may have encouraged that illusion but Steele says: “We’re not as big as football but we have a unique culture and our values are very distinct in the way we behave, the way we conduct ourselves on and off the pitch.

“Rugby grounds may be full of tens of thousands of people but they’re silent for a kick. Little examples like that. You only get that in rugby. I can’t think of any other sport where that happens. That is the game’s uniqueness and it captures something which some other sports don’t have.”

Steele accepts that when the game turned professional, its traditional values were brought into question.

“People wondered how the ethos, the Corinthian spirit, would change. But that has evolved and been preserved,” he maintains. Can Steele be talking of the same sport that produced the Bloodgate scandal?

“Absolutely,” he says. “Having values you hold dear doesn’t mean that you don’t get things wrong. It doesn’t mean that people don’t sometimes break the rules. That’s life. Bloodgate was an extremely regrettable scenario.

“Yes, it was an example of trying to win at all costs and it isn’t acceptable. But the number of such examples you get in rugby are very few.”

The last year has also seen many disciplinary problems, not least with Saracens coach Brendan Venter, who last week was fined £22,000 by the European Rugby Cup for misconduct. Mention of his name brings a smile to Steele’s face. “Brendan’s a fascinating character,” he says. “I remember him as a player at London Irish.

“If you speak to people who have played with him, he was a very motivational player because the team centred on him. And, if you speak to people at Saracens, they’ll tell you that’s the way he runs the side. I’ve got a lot of respect for him and I think he’s doing some great things there. So, rugby needs characters.”

Steele is just as diplomatic in dealing with Will Carling’s famous comment that Twickenham was run by “old farts”, most of them on the RFU council.

With a laugh, he says: “I don’t know who you mean! I certainly wouldn’t use that term. But we have come a long way and the structure of the RFU has changed. Five years ago, the council elected a 12-member management board which is now the board of directors, a more streamlined, agile way of decision making.”

But, despite not wanting to talk about Carling’s comment, Steele does confess that, when he got the call at his offices in UK Sport back in June to take over from Barron, he had his doubts.

As he went to meet the head hunters, he wondered if he should be leaving one of the main bodies responsible for delivering the 2012 Olympics.

“I was focused like everyone on London 2012, it was getting ever closer, becoming very exciting,” he says. “So it was a very difficult decision leaving before the Olympics had happened.

“But rugby is my sport. I have played in all the different teams through minis, schools, my army days, colleges, club and England A. I’ve coached professionally, I’ve had a life in rugby. I could not turn down the offer.”

But, in accepting the job, Steele knows he has taken on the even greater challenge that, come the 2015 World Cup, English rugby will have been transformed from a world-beating business into a world-beating side.


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