The Sports Journalists’ Association reacted with disappointment at the news that John Steele, chief executive officer of our sponsors, UK Sport, is to leave the organisation, but wished him well as the former Northampton rugby player and Heineken Cup-winning coach heads to Twickenham to take on the role at the head of the RFU.
“I think he is made for the job,” Barry Newcombe, the SJA Chairman, said, “and if he brings to Twickenham the people skills he has learned at UK Sport and elsewhere, he should do a formidable job.”
Steele is to replace Francis Baron, the high profile RFU CEO who is retiring after 12 years in the post. In effect, Steele is trading in overseeing elite athlete funding for the 2012 Olympics for presiding at the host union ahead of the 2015 Rugby World Cup.
Steele’s background in rugby covers a successful playing and coaching career at the elite level, culminating in leading Northampton Saints to Heineken Cup success in 2000.
He then moved to become executive director of the club where he oversaw a successful flotation and the redevelopment of Franklins Gardens.
Steele has been at UK Sport since 2005, including a spell when he was seriously ill through cancer. The chair of UK Sport, Baroness Campbell, said this morning, “While we are all very sad to see John go, we are also very proud that he has got what for him is the job of a lifetime.
“As a rugby man it was too good for him to turn down, and he leaves with the best wishes of everyone at UK Sport.
“That he has been able to move on to one of the most high profile CEO roles in British sport speaks volumes I think not just for him but also the reputation and credibility of the organisation as a whole.
“I would like to place on record my personal thanks for his incredible passion, loyalty and support over the past five years and to wish him well in what will be a challenging but hugely rewarding new role,” Baroness Campbell said.
Martyn Thomas, the chairman of the RFU Management Board, said, “We are confident that we have captured the best person for the role of CEO at the RFU.
“Throughout the interview John greatly impressed us with his style, knowledge and capabilities across a broad range of areas. Nobody was able to match his unique combination of a background in and knowledge of rugby and a high profile administrative role in sport. We fully believe he is the right man to take the RFU forward in its next stage of growth as we prepared to host the Rugby World Cup in 2015 and for the legacy beyond that.”
Steele said, “I am delighted and am very much looking forward to what I know will be a big challenge in the sport that I am immensely passionate about.
“The next five years will be hugely exciting times for English rugby, culminating in a home World Cup in 2015. During this time I will be totally committed to ensuring a legacy is created from the World Cup at both a community and elite level, whilst building on the sound commercial basis already created at Twickenham.
“The decision to move on was an incredibly difficult one. I am extremely proud of UK Sport and what it has achieved over the past few years, and what I am sure it will go on to achieve.”
Perhaps significantly, given the on-going review by Culture Secretary Jeremy Hunt of all government-funded sporting agencies, Steele also said of UK Sport, “It has a vital role to play not just in ensuring our athletes’ success in London 2012 but also helping to shape the future of the sporting landscape in the UK. I know that I leave it not only in safe hands but full of talented, experienced and committed people whom it has been a pleasure to lead.”
According to an internal UK Sport email sent from Sue Campbell’s office, UK Sport will be advertising for a new CEO shortly “with the focus particularly on someone that can lead the organisation not just through to 2012 but also beyond”.
After Steele’s departure next month, Baroness Campbell, Liz Nicholl and Tim Hollingsworth will handle the funding agency’s day-to-day running.
The SJA’s Newcombe, a former chairman of the Rugby Writers’ Club, said, “I saw Steele play lots of times and he was a very methodical player at fly-half who knew how to bring the best out of the men around him. His goal-kicking was an art form.
“Steele has already proved himself in the world of sports administration but now has to start again in the new setting of Twickenham which has changed so much in commercial terms in Baron’s reign.”