Official’s 10 months at Twickenham ended in chaos but he claims changes on his watch have helped revival of the national team.
John Steele has not set foot inside Twickenham since he was sacked as chief executive of the Rugby Football Union last June.
“I’ve had a few invitations to go back and will in due course,” he says. “I thought I should leave a healthy time for the dust to settle.”
Given that his departure resulted in recriminations and resignations, it may be quite a while before Steele returns. Martyn Thomas, the RFU chairman who sacked Steele and took over as acting chief executive, himself fell on his sword following England’s disastrous World Cup and a series of reviews which revealed the chaotic state of English rugby.
The row between Steele and Thomas centred on the botched appointment of a performance director, but Judge Jeff Blackett’s report into the issue, while highly critical of Thomas, largely exonerated Steele.
“I’m delighted that a review headed by a respected Judge and including independent people was done in the right way. They didn’t shirk what they had to do and looked in detail at all sorts of things. After a lot of information in the public domain, which perhaps wasn’t as accurate as it might have been, that report told it as it was.”
It is understandable Steele should console himself in this way but is he presenting an accurate picture when he claims England’s renaissance in the Six Nations is the legacy of the changes he tried to make during his tumultuous 10-month reign?
Far from admitting that anything went wrong for him at Twickenham, he insists: “I’m very proud of my time there because I created an environment and an opportunity for change and that change is taking place. I’m delighted to see some of the success on the pitch. There’s real potential in the full England team.”
That promise was shown as the new-look squad — put together by Stuart Lancaster — grew stronger as the championship wore on. culminating in the 30-9 victory over Ireland (above, Ben Youngs celebrates his try from the match). While appointing Lancaster permanent head coach is not in Steele’s gift any longer, he is full of praise for the interim boss.
“He’s done a great job,” says the former Northampton fly-half who coached the club to the Heineken Cup in 2000. “A lot of people say he should get the job and I wish him the best of luck. What we’re seeing in the team is some belief, some real talent and there’s more that can come from them.”
His predecessor, Francis Baron, may claim nothing needed to be changed: the RFU Steele took over was both successful and profitable. But Steele says: “The RFU weren’t what they said they were on or off the pitch. The moment you say, ‘Actually we’re a great organisation and there’s no need to change,’ is the moment you definitely need to change.”
He then reminds me of what he said when I interviewed him three months before he was sacked. “We talked about the likelihood of winning the 2011 World Cup and I said to you quite clearly that wasn’t going to happen.
“We have to be careful with the English game, that’s because there’s a minimum standard there which just about delivers, to think that’s okay then. The aspirations have to be for far more. English rugby, to a certain extent, has been a sleeping giant.”
But, in trying to awaken the giant, Steele had a nightmare.
“It was a difficult time for me, but actually I can still look in the mirror,” he says. “I never stepped back from doing what I thought was right. I’ve done something that was good. What I couldn’t have handled was if I’d done something which wasn’t in the interest of the sport. That wasn’t being done by everybody. I’d rather have had a longer tenure but I wasn’t going to shy away from making some hard decisions, and those decisions now are a platform for future growth. I’m proud of what we achieved in the time I was there.”
Last November, five months after Steele’s exit from HQ, Baron told Standard Sport that his successor had lacked the experience for the role and that “he didn’t seem to have a clear idea of what he wanted to do or why he wanted to do it”.
“Francis,” retorts Steele sharply, “had no background in sport when he was appointed. I’ve worked in two national property companies and I was responsible for budgets of hundreds of millions at UK Sport.
“I ran a private sporting company which was effectively Northampton. We were one of the first clubs to make a profit out of the professional game, build a new stadium and we floated the company. I’ve had a wide remit of experience and I’m delighted with the life I’ve had in sport.”
We are talking in his office at the Youth Sport Trust, the charity responsible for improving sports provision in schools, where the 47-year-old has just taken over as chief executive.
His appointment was the result of a curious sporting musical chairs that Steele started. While still at Twickenham, he recruited Steve Grainger, who had been head of the Youth Sport Trust for 16 years, to be the RFU’s rugby development director. The month Grainger began at Twickenham, Steele was sacked.
Now, in taking over from Grainger, Steele feels he has returned home. “My motivation was to work with Sue [Campbell, chair of Youth Sport Trust] again. Sue is an incredibly capable and inspirational individual.”
Steele sings a very optimistic tune about the state of school sports. “There’s been a bit of a scratched record going round that there’s no competitive sport in schools. Over the last 10 years there’s been a turnaround. From a time when competitive sport was on the wane, the decline of our schools competition has been arrested and we’ve seen big improvement.
“From what I’ve seen, there is a lot of very good sport in a lot of state schools. All state schools will play some form of competitive sport. More than 90 per cent of schools are playing sport or children are doing two hours of PE in school as of the last school sport survey. That compares from the early 2000s where it was down in the 20 per cent.”
However, due to Government cuts, the Trust has lost 40 members of staff and funding for school sports was slashed from £163million a year to £65m over two years from 2011 to 2013.
“The Trust had to change a large part of the workforce due to changes in government policy. We are at a bit of a crossroads for the Trust in terms of what we will do.”
The urgency to refocus is all the greater for, while 2012 may heighten interest in sport, what happens when the Olympic circus leaves town?
“Whenever you’ve had an Olympics or a World Cup, you get this spike of interest, this passion, that inspires people to engage and then it falls off again. The Olympics is half the story for me. The other half of the story is how we then build on London, on the fact that a young generation has now been engaged? Because there will be a number of things that stop at the end of September after the Paralympics.”
Steele is investing much hope in the Sainsbury’s-backed initiative of inter- and intra-school competition culminating in the School Games, the last event at the O2 and on the Olympic site before the Games begin in July.
He says: “[The School Games] will provide a real opportunity on the back of London 2012 to drive sport through a younger generation in this country and make sure they can engage with sport. If we don’t immediately do that, that generation will have been lost.”