Rugby's fall guy fights back for British youth
There is a new man in charge of the Rugby Football Union this week, which means dealing with what one rugby writer described on Monday as Twickenham's "venal politics" is somebody else's problem.
John Steele will not miss that headache but he could be forgiven for wishing it was him still sitting behind the chief executive's desk and not Ian Ritchie, if only for the simple reason that Steele's brief but bloody RFU reign might have made Ritchie's life easier.
The challenges facing his replacement are mighty - the appointment of a permanent coach for the senior team, reversing a decline in participation and preparing for a "home" World Cup in 2015, to name just three - but he faces them with a better chance of success than Steele had when he turned up for his first day at HQ 18 months ago.
Steele might not have been in the job long but he did overhaul the union's management team and finally got two independent, non-executives on the board. Most importantly, however, his dramatic exit shone a forensic light on Twickenham. Not a pretty sight.
The former Northampton and England A fly-half, however, is not fishing for thanks, which is good as he too has a new job to get his teeth into. And it is a role that is arguably more important than any he has had before, including the one at the RFU.
Steele is the new chief executive of the Youth Sport Trust (YST), a charity that encourages under-18s to play more sport inside and outside school.
He may never work again in a sport he served elegantly as a player, coach and club administrator but if he gets the YST job right he can play a major role in helping English rugby - and pretty much every other sport - punch its weight on a more consistent basis.
John Steele (centre) during his time at the RFU with Rob Andrew (left) and Martin Johnson. Photo: Getty
"I can look you in the eye and say I'm more excited about this job than any I've had before," Steele said when I went to see him on his third day in the post earlier this month. "You can have the best system in the world but it will mean nothing if children aren't playing sport."
Steele should know a thing or two about decent systems as he coached Northampton to Heineken Cup glory in 2000 and played a part in the best performance by a British Olympic team for a century in his role as chief executive of UK Sport, the agency that bankrolls Team GB.
It was that 47-medal haul in 2008 - good enough for fourth in the Beijing medal table - that alerted the rest of sport to Steele's talents as a strategist, a fact that might not be apparent from his recent press cuttings.
It would be odd to continue this much longer without stating a bald fact: Steele was sacked by the RFU after just nine months, the botched recruitment of a new performance director a major cause of his downfall according to many.
The original plan was that the performance director role would include responsibility for all of England's elite teams, including the senior side. Most people agreed, especially the press, that the ideal candidate was Sir Clive Woodward.
However, the appointment of England's 2003 World Cup-winning coach was delayed, then his remit downgraded, a decision that was subsequently reversed. But a fed-up Woodward finally withdrew his interest in the job.
Steele, who was believed to have made a sure-footed start to dragging the RFU into the 21st century, was blamed and was out of a job three weeks later. A review of this fiasco by the RFU's disciplinary officer, Judge Jeff Blackett, exonerated Steele and pointed the finger elsewhere.
So, in the space of a year, Steele went from being the best qualified candidate to run English rugby, to becoming an out-of-his-depth bungler, to being the blameless victim of a corporate culture that would make most Mafia crime families blush at the waste of it all.
"I left because my value set, what I believe in, wasn't akin to others in senior management," said Steele. "There was a parting of the ways and that's fine. I'm happy with what I did and I think the game will benefit.
"But there are certain things I wouldn't compromise on in terms of the game's values and how we conduct ourselves. So it's happened and it's ancient history. The sport, quite rightly, is bigger than any individual and it will move on from strength to strength."
And that is all the former Royal Artillery officer is willing to say about the matter. He tried to reinvigorate the RFU but, for whatever reason, he could not complete the task and Ritchie must now lead English rugby away from the ruins of last year's World Cup campaign. Steele must now focus on his own recovery job.
The YST has, for most of the last 20 years, been a big player in trying to improve the quality and quantity of sport played by schoolchildren.
The first decade was a bit of a struggle for all concerned, with only 25% of under-16s playing at least two hours of sport a week by 2002.
The reasons for this were complicated - the sale of playing fields, insurance costs, a shortage of PE teachers, a backlash against competitive sport and so on - but the response was straightforward: more money, distributed via the YST.
By 2009, largely thanks to School Sports Partnerships set up by the trust, 90% of schoolchildren were getting two hours of sport a week. But that work almost came to an end in 2010 when the Coalition Government chopped £162m from the school sport budget, a controversial decision that was partially reversed a few months later in the face of widespread protests.
The trust is now operating on a greatly reduced budget but has managed to continue most of its work and has since brought in new commercial partners to fund a range of programmes aimed at getting more youngsters into sport.
That is a challenge Steele takes enormously seriously, particularly as we hurtle towards what is very probably the most important summer in British sporting history.
"London 2012 will be amazing," he explained. "There will be doubters about the whole project but the job this country has done is remarkable. But that is only half the story. Sure, to some it's the end but if you look more broadly we'll have a generation captivated by sport and inspired by what they've seen. It's a crossroads moment.
"Will we be remembered for taking this opportunity to galvanise a generation? Will we look back in 10 or 20 years' time at the iconic moments and say that is when a nation suddenly realised sport's value and potential?
"Sport is more than just running fast or jumping a long way. It can be a vehicle for change in health, behaviour, crime, and it can help create new business leaders. Sport is a catalyst and the Youth Sport Trust has a pivotal role."
Steele once hoped to play that role at the RFU. But it is his new role that has the greater potential for change, change that can make the lives of chief executives at all British national governing bodies considerably easier.
As well as my blogs, you can follow me on Twitter when I'm out and about