Nigel Gillingham: 'RFU needs more diversity — it will help us grow the game'

Nigel Gillingham: 'RFU needs more diversity — it will help us grow the game'

Nigel Gillingham took over as RFU president a year ago – Shutterstock/Dan Sheridan

When Nigel Gillingham stepped into the shoes of Rugby Football Union president a year ago, he could not possibly have imagined quite what he was getting into. His tenure has seen: three Premiership clubs going bust; the sacking of the England head coach 10 months from the World Cup; and the community game’s revolt against the lowering of the tackle height.

But both the RFU and Gillingham, the long-standing council member, former RAF group captain and second-row forward at Leicester, have weathered the storms and, possibly even made some strides forward for the greater good.

Certainly Gillingham — sitting in one of Twickenham’s plush hospitality suites — is of that persuasion. As president, he is privy to the goings-on of the RFU board but does not hold a seat; he is the leader of the RFU’s council, the “House of Commons” overseeing the work of the “cabinet” board. While not wishing to shy away from any shortcomings, Gillingham is adamant that a brighter future for English rugby lies ahead.

“You never want those downs,” he tells Telegraph Sport. “But there have been fewer downs than there were highs. And all of the downs have been great opportunities — which we need to take. If we take the demise of those three clubs. Clearly, you don’t want to lose clubs of that stature from our footprint, but it has helped in that it has brought people together to design a new Professional Game Partnership.

“Everyone understands that we have to get to a situation where the elite club game is sustainable for the future, without destroying some of the great things that are important to rugby; the opportunity to move up and down leagues.

“On the tackle-height, first and foremost, it was absolutely the right thing to do based on the scientific evidence we were given. What I think we’ve learnt from it is that as a union we have to engage better with the wider game. During the consultation piece that we put together, we began that process.

“It’s going to require empathy from players towards match officials and vice-versa, as well as coaches and spectators. The evidence from France and New Zealand — the former who has had it for three or four years and the latter just for this season — is that it’s a safer game. There are fewer concussions. Now, we’ll have to prove that over the next couple of years.”

With everything that has happened this year, Gillingham acknowledges mistakes have been made; but the president remains level-headed. The only way to improve is to look forward. That rationale is employed when explaining the sacking of Eddie Jones last November.

“I spoke at Bishop’s Stortford RFC the weekend before the review,” Gillingham recalls. “I said that I didn’t know the outcome because I didn’t sit on the review panel but you have to accept that Eddie had the best ever record as an English coach. But is it acceptable that England are booed off the pitch as they were against South Africa last autumn? The decision was made, I wasn’t on the panel; all I can say is that, having been with the England team in the Six Nations, it was like a breath of fresh air and, actually, having listened to the players, Steve [Borthwick], Kevin Sinfield and the others, there’s a real optimism for the future.”

Gillingham says the arrival of Steve Borthwick and Kevin Sinfield in the England setup is a 'breath of fresh air'

Gillingham says the arrival of Steve Borthwick and Kevin Sinfield in the England setup is a ‘breath of fresh air’ – Getty Images/Alex Davidson

Last month, Gillingham’s presidential predecessor, Jeff Blackett, highlighted exclusively to Telegraph Sport how he believed an increase in the RFU board’s power had “resulted in the reduction of rugby knowledge and experience at the highest levels of governance”. Gillingham does not agree, although he believes that a review of the decision-making structure at the RFU is overdue.

“Jeff has his views and he’s entitled to them,” Gillingham says. “I must admit that I don’t agree with him on the diversity angle and, to say it’s diluted our knowledge… I don’t see that as true on the board — and certainly not on council. It’s absolutely right that we should examine that we get the right people on the policy-making and decision-making bodies. We haven’t done it properly since the UK Sport Governance Code was introduced in 2017 — that was six years ago. It needs to be done.

“Let’s take the board. There are 12 members, of which three are ex-internationals. There are four others who are elected by council from the community game. So that’s seven of the 12. We have an independent chair and independent directors, too, who bring different skills which, perhaps, are not available from people on the council. They might have excellent financial acumen, for instance. Polly [Williams] was a finance director for M&S; Yasmin Diamond has done a lot in the world of corporate communications. They bring different skills to the board — and that’s exactly what you want.

“Council is well represented in terms of constituent bodies but, again, we need a more diverse group. What we need to do is to try and reflect society — that’s why inclusion and diversity is important. It doesn’t dilute us, it helps us. We always want to be more inclusive, because that increases diversity, which increases our participation numbers; whether that be fans, players, coaches or referees. And that applies all across the range: gender, ethnicity and socio-economically. That’s got to be good for the game, hasn’t it?”

The experience of Twickenham as a stadium is also set for review and potential reform, as the RFU enters a wide-scale state of flux. At the top of the list of refurbishments is the PGP, a long-term professional rugby partnership to be agreed with the Premiership and the RFU in due course.

“The vision for that is: world-beating England teams and thriving professional leagues, delivered through a fully optimised system in partnership with our players,” Gillingham says.

“We’re not just talking about the Premiership. We need to think about how to develop the Championship — because that needs to be sustainable, too. We need to make sure that all our talent has the opportunity to play regularly — that’s one of the problems at the moment. Our developing talent does not play enough rugby.

“The investors that we’ve had — Nigel Wray, Bruce Craig and Steve Lansdown and others — have been fantastic, and we thank them for that. I’m not sure the next generation of those types of investors is around… we have to find them. So that people do want to invest into our professional club system.”

In a 12-month spell that comes to an end on Monday, the RFU presidency has taken him from Norwich to Newton Abbot and up to Newcastle – as well as New Zealand for the women’s World Cup — it is the grass roots that give Gillingham most joy. Giving back to a sport that has given him so much; and that, he believes, will continue to do so for many years to come.

“There is always going to be something to worry about. You always need to be… not on your guard, but thinking about the situation. Not everything will go smoothly,” Gillingham reflects. “There will probably be something on the tackle height that we haven’t even thought about – the unintended consequence. In fact, we’re doing some ‘war-gaming’ on that currently: ‘What if this and that happens?’ That’s all you can do. But, I think, the RFU is in a pretty good place. That doesn’t mean we’ve got everything right, but we have plans across a whole range of things… the future is quite bright.”

It might feel tough to believe now, but if Gillingham’s determination is shared throughout all corridors of Twickenham, then he may well be right.

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