Evening Standard

Suited to lead: Francis Baron has proved his ability to run the Rugby Football Union but has not been asked for advice during the crisis there. Image courtesy of Evening Standard

As Francis Baron, the former chief executive of the Rugby Football Union, arrives for our meeting, he receives a text: “Dear Francis, If my information is correct, you are now back in charge again at Twickenham which is marvellous news. Everyone at Wellington wishes you every success.”

Dr Anthony Seldon, the Master of Wellington College who had sent the text, was not joking. But, as Baron scrolls through his mobile, he smiles, saying: “It’s amazing the number of people that have been telling me, ‘You’ve got to go back’. People like Dr Seldon even assume I’ve gone back. It is all very funny.”

What Baron finds less funny is that, with the RFU in virtual meltdown, nobody from Twickenham has contacted him for advice.

“We have had this tumultuous period with appalling decisions taken but nobody on the current board has picked up the phone and said, ‘Francis, can you come and help us sort out one or two things?'”

This suggests the 65-year-old is only a phone call away from a return but he is suitably diplomatic.

“I do not expect any approach from those currently in power. [Any approach] is entirely hypothetical and I’m not going to say ‘yes’, and I’m not going to say ‘no’.”

But, speaking to me just days before tomorrow’s meeting of the RFU board, who will consider a letter from 130 clubs threatening a special general meeting if acting chief executive Martyn Thomas is not sacked, Baron does not hide his dismay about events at Twickenham. Nor is he in doubt as to what Thomas should do.

“When things go wrong on your watch, it’s a well-established tradition in British public life that you do the honourable thing,” Baron says. “Met Police Commissioner Sir Paul Stephenson stood down although he wasn’t directly involved in phone hacking. Even Rebekah Brooks stood down at News International.

“But decision-making in the RFU now seem to be focused on self-preservation, not on taking the game forward. To see the organisation that you left in excellent shape fall into the current state of disrepair and disrepute is absolutely heart-rending. It’s like seeing a favoured son going off the rails.”

Only last year, the RFU were seen as a role model for other UK sports. Now there are no less than five inquiries taking place to determine what has gone wrong with English rugby. These include an investigation into the game’s governance by top City lawyers Slaughter and May at the request of the Sports Minister Hugh Robertson.

Close colleagues are convinced that the rot started when the board refused to accept Baron’s advice about how to handle his intended retirement. Baron was due to go on his 65th birthday in February this year. He is not prepared to reveal why he decided to retire early, leaving in the summer of 2010.

Thomas’s six-year term as chairman was to end in July and colleagues of Baron say he was worried about the impact of the two changes in such quick succession. He proposed that he carry on until the conclusion of this year’s World Cup. By then a successor could have been recruited for an orderly handover. Thomas and the board not only disagreed but ­subsequently decided that Baron’s retirement should mark a major strategic change for English rugby.

Baron had come to Twickenham in 1998 having successfully run a string of major media and travel companies such as WH Smith and First Choice. The RFU were £40million in debt and losing £5m a year. “I had NatWest come to see me on my first day in office,” he recalls. “They said, ‘We’re on the point of issuing a notice that you’re in breach of your loan covenants, Mr Baron’.”

By the time he retired, Twickenham was a business with £140million annual turnover featuring a four-star hotel, a fitness club, a conference and exhibitions business and a travel company.

The RFU are expected to announce shortly the results of the last annual business plan Baron put in place for 2010-11, showing an operating profit of £39m. Baron argues he had to turn rugby into a business.

“The whole focus of being successful, commercially, was to invest that ­financial success in developing the whole game, both community and ­professional.”

But, despite England winning the 2003 World Cup and being runners-up in 2007, Baron was seen by some amateur members of the board as too much of a money man. As he departed, the message from Twickenham was that the new chief executive would concentrate on rugby. This led the board to ignore Baron’s advice that his successor should have had experience of running one of the top companies in the country. Instead, they went for John Steele.

“John is a very nice guy,” says Baron witheringly. “But he had no experience of managing anything apart from UK Sport, a quango. He’d never managed a substantial business. When he was director of rugby at Northampton, he didn’t set the place alight and was replaced. I told the board they were heading for disaster when you recruit a CEO who doesn’t have any real experience of being a CEO.

“John didn’t seem to have a clear idea of what he wanted to do, why he wanted to do it and Martyn was interfering all the time, which a non-executive chairman shouldn’t do. It’s not surprising that all hell broke loose and you ended up with the CEO and the chairman reading off different hymn sheets. John survived less than nine months but Martyn Thomas was responsible and still clings on to his position.”

So hostile were the board to Baron’s legacy that Thomas even announced this June that the role of the finance director was to be abolished. “The result was that our bankers, Barclays, were furious,” reveals Baron.

“A volte face has now taken place and the post of finance director will be re-instated. In claiming they were going to focus on rugby over the last year the board have ended up focusing on nothing. They’ve dismantled the management structure I had left behind that gave us financial stability and undermined the rugby side which gave us a good World Cup chance.

“I’ve never seen anything like it in any major union. The number of bizarre decisions means there is now no full-time chairman, no full-time chief executive, no finance director, no human resources director and no performance director.”

In 2006, the four-man selection panel on which Baron had a casting vote appointed Rob Andrews as elite rugby director. Sir Clive Woodward, who had left rugby as a World Cup-winning coach for football in 2004, wanted the job after his sojourn with Southampton FC had failed but, reveals Baron: “We needed a new agreement with the Premiership clubs and Rob edged it ahead of Clive simply on his knowledge of professional club rugby. Clive is very unhappy as he keeps telling me every time I see him.”

After Baron’s departure, Thomas and the board split Andrew’s elite rugby department into two. Andrew was given the operations job, which was basically administration, and a new performance director was to be recruited to run the England teams.

The speculation was Thomas wanted Woodward in that job but Baron talks of how the process of finding a candidate was flawed and that it was unclear how the appointment would affect team manager Martin Johnson.

Torrid time: Martin Johnson oversaw a disastrous World Cup campaign. Image courtesy of Evening Standard

“They didn’t actually define what the new job was and couldn’t agree on whether Martin Johnson reported to the performance director or the CEO,” Baron says. “The job description, incredibly, changed three times during the recruitment process. This farce has meant that, after an awful nine-month void, we’ve gone back to the structure that I left behind. And what has been achieved with a £2m-£3m cost in redundancies, lawyers’ and consultants’ fees and a wretched World Cup?”

It was not only the England structure that has been thrown into chaos. At a special meeting last December, Thomas also persuaded the members to remove the six-year term limit on the RFU ­chairman.

“I was absolutely gobsmacked as only six months earlier we had completed a three-year constitutional review, enshrining the six-year limit which was approved at the AGM,” Baron says. “Six months later the chairman could just go on and on. There must be time limits on elected positions in all sports governing bodies so you don’t get people believing they have a job for life.

“In that very clubby atmosphere, there is no mechanism to remove an elected member no matter how poorly he has performed. The only method is through a disciplinary hearing for bringing the game into disrepute.”

Many would argue that the RFU board, led by ­Thomas, has done just that. In June, after Steele was sacked, the council asked an independent panel headed by Judge Jeff Blackett, the RFU’s disciplinary officer, to investigate. Blackett’s devastating report recommended that Thomas and all the other non-executive board members step down. Baron still cannot get over his surprise as to what happened when the council met in July.

“I’ve never heard anything like it really. Martyn Thomas got his own solicitors, Harbottle and Lewis, to issue legal threats against Jeff Blackett if the report was published or acted upon. That terrified some council members into not supporting the recommendations of the report.”

At their meeting in September the council did ignore legal advice from Thomas’s barrister and published the Blackett report. Thomas stepped down as non-executive chairman but became acting chief executive on a package estimated at around £200,000. Blackett’s report did say that Thomas should retain the chairmanship of the 2015 World Cup. This has a salary of £150,000 and there has been speculation that England would lose the right to stage the competition if Thomas was removed.

“Rubbish,” says Baron. “I negotiated and signed the hosting agreement for the World Cup with the International Rugby Board. There is no provision whatsoever for any named individual, me or Martyn or anybody else to be in post. And neither should there be. You can’t say we’re giving the World Cup to England because we like Fred Smith.”

Baron accepts that Thomas is an amiable character. “I’ve not met anybody who doesn’t like Martyn as a person, very chatty and charming. The criticisms of him are not personal – they are all about competence, integrity and doing the right thing.

“But I am very nervous that we’re not going to be taking the right decisions. The RFU now desperately need a clean break and a new board. If it’s the old discredited board who are recruiting the new chief executive, the same people who recruited John Steele, I’m worried that they won’t go for a heavyweight and get it right.”

This brings us back to whether Baron might put himself forward as that heavyweight. He says: “I’m very happy looking after my own private business interests.”

When he took the RFU job in 1998 Baron ignored his wife Rosamund’s advice, saying: “It’s a simple turnaround, darling.” He expected to stay for three years. He stayed for 12.

This time, the turnaround might be more messy but, despite his non-committal stance, the impression is that Baron could be tempted to return by the right people.


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