By Gavin Mairs for the Telegraph
The Rugby Football Union has been plunged into turmoil less than a year before the World Cup in Japan after chief executive Steve Brown announced his resignation on Friday in the face of mounting criticism of the governing body's financial position. He decided to step down from his £400,000-a-year post, according to RFU sources, because of constant sniping and rugby politics.
Brown, 53, who succeeded Ian Ritchie last September after six years as the RFU's chief financial officer, is understood to have informed the board of his decision on Wednesday.
Staff at Twickenham were made aware, on the eve of England's Quilter international against Japan at Twickenham, while Brown also told head coach Eddie Jones of his decision. Brown will remain in his position until the end of the year, with Nigel Melville, the RFU's director of professional rugby, taking over as interim until a permanent successor is found.
Brown's resignation comes after The Telegraph had published details of a critical report of the RFU's financial position, compiled by former chief executive Francis Baron. He claimed the governing body had incurred cumulative net losses over the past six years (excluding a one-off Rugby World Cup profit of £26 million) of £46.4 million. The RFU strongly disputed Baron's findings, which also questioned the cost of the redevelopment of Twickenham's East Stand, which had risen from £53.5 million to £81 million.
There was further criticism from John Owen, a former RFU president who was also chair of its community rugby standing committee for five years, who warned that the RFU's recent redundancy programme and cuts would devastate the grass-roots game. Owen said several clubs were considering calling a special general meeting to address the RFU's financial position and the impact of planned cuts of up to £20 million over the next four years.
RFU sources confirmed Brown had decided to step down "after becoming weary of rugby politics in the face of ongoing criticism from people who used to work there".
"Staff are extremely angry at interventions by the likes of Baron at a time when Brown has been working hard to get RFU back on track," said one source. Another said: "This was 100 per cent his decision, he had just had enough of the sniping."
Brown's decision comes ahead of an RFU council meeting next week, with other sources claiming that the financial position remained a grave concern. The governing body's annual accounts are due to be published next month, with Baron predicting they will show another significant loss. One senior source said: "A special general meeting needs to be called now. The board should also be considering their position."
The RFU will want to have new chief executive in place ahead of next year's World Cup in Japan.
One of Brown's first decisions was to award Jones a contract extension to 2021, while implementing a succession plan to ensure a smooth takeover. As Jones' extension was dependent on a successful World Cup campaign, the succession plan will have to be headed up by Melville.
Brown said in a statement: "This has been a very difficult decision for me to make and I informed the RFU board earlier this week that the time is right for me to step down and take some time out.
"I've loved my time in rugby and am deeply proud to have made a contribution to a sport I love.
"It has been a fascinating 7½ years and a great honour to lead the RFU over the last 14 months. I am proud of the people who make up the Union. I'm sad to leave, but the Union is in good shape, with an excellent leadership team in place."
Brown added that he still planned to attend today's Twickenham Test.
Only last month he had outlined his future for the RFU in an exclusive interview with The Telegraph in which he defended his financial record. Critics, however, highlighted an overspend on the England squad last year of close to £1 million, at a time when a redundancy programme over 54 job losses was under way.
Brown has had plenty of experience of the political machinations at Twickenham. On his first day as chief financial officer in June 2011, his then chief executive John Steele was fired after a dispute over the job description for a performance director. He acted as interim chief executive between November 2011 and February 2012 after Martyn Thomas's departure until Ritchie was appointed. Brown also had to step up after a controversial departure when Debbie Jevans stepped down for personal reasons as chief executive of England Rugby 2015, organiser of the last World Cup.
Brown and Ritchie had worked closely together in striking a £220 million eight-year deal with Premiership clubs in 2016, and Brown was appointed as Ritchie's successor last September, describing it as the "job of a lifetime".
Andy Cosslett, chairman of the RFU, said: "It is a sad day for the union. Steve has made a huge contribution to the RFU during his time here. He has been a pivotal figure during a long period of sustained growth. Steve's tireless work ethic and selfless attitude has won him the respect of all who know him and the game will be extremely sad to see him go."