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Rugby's fall guy fights back for British youth

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Matt Slater | 18:06 UK time, Monday, 27 February 2012

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 with Rob Andrew and Martin Johnson

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.

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"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.

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  • Comment number 1.

    popular blog then

  • Comment number 2.

    well seeing you first up, it probably put most people off.
    and change your name, don't you know he's gone on to a bigger club, how super is that

  • Comment number 3.

    Give it a chance SuperLeedsetc! It's only been live for 30 minutes. And as John Steele would say himself, it's about quality of experience, not quantity.

  • Comment number 4.

    SuperLeeds I agree. We've just had a classic weekend of 6 nations rugby, but what do the beeb do, close that down and put this tedious stuff like this up. Definitely an out of season blog not one for the middle of the six nations.

    I am annoyed by this as its been put on there purely to appease complaining english bloggers (you know who you are) who profusely whinge (entirely spuriously) about lack of English coverage. Be careful what you wish for as this is what you get...

  • Comment number 5.

    Sorry Matt no offense, I did read the blog its perfectly well written and of interest, but right now we all are focused on the actual rugby and the 6 nations tournament which is shaping up to be a classic...

  • Comment number 6.

    @ 4

    just name and shame. we all know it's last king, who's silence on the last blog was deafening. page 6 he eventually appeared with his tripe. remind us again king
    how was it proved a try again.

  • Comment number 7.

    Chap1 exactomundo and another infamous blogger who's name escapes me...microphone, earphone, telephone can't quite remember?? I know there's a phone in it though! Superleeds did you learn to spell Daffodil yet?!! ;)

  • Comment number 8.

    @ 7

    now i know who you mean, but at least he had the stones to comment, even if it
    was the usual rubbish. to hide away until you think it's blown over is pretty sad,isn't it eh last king

  • Comment number 9.

    Yes both conspicuous by their abscence! This should be up the aforementioneds street, I'm sure he could right a dissertation on this one!!

  • Comment number 10.

    Come on then boys, here's your blog, this is what you wanted. Get your oar in. Ah no, this is not really what you want is it. Its the Welsh blogs that really get you excited and all the pent up diatribe you get to unleash!!!!! ;)

  • Comment number 11.

    why would you think the english lads would comment on this guys? it has nothing to do with Wales whatsoever!

    i'm gonna throw them some bait and see if we can land a pesky wriggler...........IT WASN'T A TRY!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! WALES ARE THE STRONGEST NORTHERN HEMISPHERE TEAM OF THE LAST DECADE (INCLUDING YOUR WORLD CUP WINNING SQUAD)

  • Comment number 12.


    no baiting there it wasn't a try end of. they can spout of as much as they like, ref didn't give it therfore no try, you would think it's simple to understand.

    as for strongest northern hem side, ha i like it, we obviously don't believe that
    but if you don't get a bite from that one i'll be amazed

  • Comment number 13.

    As a passionate England fan... it wasn't a try. The ref said no, end of.

    Great to see Wales playing successful and entertaining rugby (generally, not this weekend!) and I can only hope that England build on the foundations of last weekend and become equally as successful and confident.

    Great blog as well Matt.

  • Comment number 14.

    Ps - It would have been a try if Mike Brown has held the ball for an extra second, knew he'd passed too early the second it left his hand and Strettle did well to get that close to scoring. Flood would have bottled it anyway.

  • Comment number 15.

    Looks like you've caught one Jessop!!

  • Comment number 16.

    Somehow missed Jessop's post... but did you read what I said?

  • Comment number 17.

    fair play ayrton

    an honest post, i really don't think eng have anything to worry over.
    old guard out, new coach ,new way of thinking. as for the final move of the game
    it really should have been scored, no exuses really just bad play by the pair of them and yes there is no proof that flood would of converted

  • Comment number 18.

    Really odd to see such a strange comment from the Welshman in London. It is a relevant and timely blog which was interested to read. I would be interested in a blog about the possibility of Andy Robinson going to Bath

  • Comment number 19.

    Matt - nice blog. Shame it's been hijacked. A very precarious area right now, with the ever grey areas of responsibility between YST, Sport England all all the NGBs taking the lead on participation in young people. A very political area too - I hope that Steele brings his experience at navigating the shark-infested waters of Twickenham to bear on those of Whitehall etc.

  • Comment number 20.

    No offence to you Matt, but why can't the press write stuff like this at the time of the event, rather than months afterwards when heads have already rolled. Fair enough: the attention of the media and fans has eventually served to rattle a few dusty cages, but at the time it was all finger-pointing, outrage and sensationalism which helps nobody. It's always the same: media frenzy, band wagon set a-rolling, general public baying for blood.....then when the dust settles there's the vaguely contrite-sounding whisper of "he might not have been so bad after all."

  • Comment number 21.

    Matt- interesting article, thanks for this. Anything which raises the profile of getting kids into sport can only be a good thing (even if the timing of the piece isn't to everyone's tastes).

    YST have a good story to tell- I'm running the London Marathon to support them this year- if anyone can help me in raising money to help them continue their work, it would be really appreciated.


  • Comment number 22.

    Having played rugby with and under the coaching of John I am really pleased that he will be working for an organisation like the YST where his skills and integrity will benefit the next generation. I have no idea what went on at the RFU but in the years I knew him he always acted with honesty and integrity.

  • Comment number 23.

    Morning all, not quite sure what those early posters were on about but I'm happy to have provided a forum for their views to be aired.

    Getting back to my story about John Steele's return to sports administration after his bruising RFU experience, here are a few answers:

    Adam (20) - You are absolutely right. Steele's time at the RFU is a classic example of media feeding frenzy where a story just takes on a self-perpetuating momentum that steamrollers over things like analysis, common sense, perspective etc etc. To put things frankly, he was caught between a well-briefed rugby press trying to bring back St Clive and his own views on due process, transparency and clear lines of responsibility. This tension was then exploited by factions at the RFU who didn't agree with Steele's desire to modernise the union. A few people did try to point this out but were shouted down by the desire for the next story...perhaps Steele didn't help himself here by not "helping" those more moderate commentators out more. He was too discreet, if you like.

    As for why it has taken until now for me, and others to write about him again, well, he hasn't wanted to talk until now. This was his first broadcast interview.

    Quick_Single (19) - I agree. I would add the BOA to that mix and the sometimes unhelpful confusion between the various government departments that fund school sports programmes. It's a complicated picture.

    As for the England v Wales stuff, I honestly don't know what to say. This interview happened three weeks ago and I wrote this last week. For the record, though, I thought it was a good game, with very little between the teams.

  • Comment number 24.

    Matt, really appreciate you coming back to our posts - you and Ben Dirs could teach some of your fellow BBC bloggers a thing or two about this :)!

    Others have talked about this blog being boring and not of interest in light of things happening on the pitch but, to be honest, I feel the exact opposite: I wish that much more press attention was focussed upon matters like this that are in the broad interests of the fans but are largely inaccessible. We rely on journalists to scrutinise and analyse the behind-the-scenes machinations of the RFU in order to keep them honest - this has long been the traditional role of the press. Yet all we seem to get these days is the odd line of bombastic sensationalism in an article otherwise bereft of reason: it became the accepted narrative to hint at the 'shambles' that was/is the RFU without ever picking apart the detail in a truly investigative and insightful way. That's why press-savvy people in the organisation merely have to skillfully dodge the odd bullet, and keep their heads down until the media storm has passed. Then, lo and behold, the abuse stops and nothing changes. If they really want to modernise then it has to be approached in a dispassionate manner with a clear focus on the long-term: the mass media jumping up and down like a kid throwing a tantrum will only ever bring about short-termist and bad decisions.

    Another example of this - to my mind - was so-called 'bloodgate'. Wild press frenzy caused panic amongst the powers that be, who struck out at the immediate thing - Richards - without realising that his actions were largely the result of an unhealthy attitude to 'tactical injuries' that had become worryingly prevalent in the game. The result: Richards is gone, the press appetite for blood is sated, and props are still feigning injuries.

  • Comment number 25.

    To all those babbling about the 6 Nations, buzz off to the rugger pages will you. Trying to take over the blog for your own means does Matt's article a real disservice; its a very nicely balanced piece encapsulating an awful lot more than simply what happened in a few rugby matches over the last few weeks. As for the delay, lets think shall we - he's just taken up his new post, he is only now getting back on the media trail, hardly rocket science shurely?

    I had the pleasure of working with Steele when he was at UK Sport and a) he seems a very fine chap indeed and b) a better administrator i'm not sure i've met. Yes, he ended up making a pig's ear of the RFU performance director recruitment and i'm sure, with hindsight, he would probably agree with that too. But as Matt points out, he also made many important changes during a very brief tenure and even if many blinkered fans and commentators out there don't recognise that, Ian Ritchie certainly will as he slips into the big leather chair at Twickers.

    If John has anything like the same effect on YST as he did on UKS, it will be all the better an organisation for it and so too will youth sport in this country.

  • Comment number 26.

    To the earlier posts I agree that Brown butchered a huge overlap by passing too early.

    As for the main blog I wish Steele well in his new job, he is obviously a shrewd business guru in a sports environment looking at some of the changes he made to modernise the RFU.

    He should take responsibility however for Rob Andrew still being in any post within the RFU player management, the man is a total liability and even as a Welsh supporter I am sick of seeing him in the stands whilst a succession of well meaning and passionate coaches struggle to work within his constraints. Robinson, Ashton and now Johnson have all been consigned to the scrap heap and Lancaster (or the new full time appointment) will follow in a season or two unless Andrew is removed completely from the picture.

    For this reason I hope Steele has learned from his mistake and is able to see the bigger picture on the non-business side as well.

  • Comment number 27.

    John Steele seems to have suffered the usual fate of well-meaning and impassioned individuals inside the RFU. He was the fall-guy for the performance director debacle but in truth the latest victim of the impossibility reconciling the big egos in the RFU. They seem unable to come up with a sensible structure that balances the interests of the professional game, the amateur game and the national team.

    In itself that really shouldn't be too hard and the average MBA student would be able to come up with an effective, equitable structure. Sadly, the personalities involved mean that absolutely every possible solution will be investigated...except the obvious one. The problem isn't Rob Andrew alone but he is a big, big part of it. The man has done his bit for human evolution by developing a prehensile buttock!

    I met up with an old Scottish mate a few days ago who told me that, as part of a management conference using the RFU's facilities (which can be rented out), there was a sudden shortage of meeting rooms. As his employer is a valued client, he and two other Scottish colleagues were ushered into the RFU's vacant main boardroom to carry on their discussions. Left alone, at the very sacred heart of "H.Q." itself, they solemnly dropped their trousers and did the full moon! Such is the parlous state of the RFU that all I could do was wish that I was there to join in!

    Good luck to John Steele. He deserved better!

    PS: I never believed it was a try and said so at the time.


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