The past six months have been busy ones for Rugby Football Union (RFU) general counsel Karena Vleck. As host union for the Rugby World Cup (RWC) 2015, the RFU has been working closely with World Rugby and organising committee England 2015 to put on what was widely acclaimed as the best tournament to date.
That acclaim came despite England crashing out at the pool stage, becoming the first host nation in RWC history not to make the knockout stages of the championships.
“It was obviously a great shame that England left the party earlier than we’d have liked,” admits Vleck. But nevertheless she says all at the RFU were pleased with the success of the tournament and the way it put rugby on peoples’ radar.
Although much of the RWC legal work was in the hands of England 2015’s own legal team, led by former Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer partner Tim Jones, Vleck was still heavily involved.
“My role was to make sure that England 2015 and RFU lawyers were properly joined up,” she explains. “The England 2015 lawyers had more work in relation to the tournament itself.
“The good thing about the tournament is that there weren’t too many major issues the lawyers had to work on.”
For the RFU RWC 2015 involved far fewer issues than 2011, when the England team’s discipline was constantly in the headlines. The only major issue for Vleck was when coaches Andy Farrell and Graham Rowntree were found to have breached protocol regulating communication between team members, coaches and match officials on match day.
From a legal standpoint, Vleck says she plans to take on board lessons learned from some of the ways the England 2015 team undertook their duties ahead of the tournament. For example, she points to the close working relationship between lawyers and the procurement team, and the contract approval process they employed.
Since RWC 2015 finished Vleck has been kept busy. The rapid exit of the hosts led to an internal review and, soon afterwards, the resignation of coach Stuart Lancaster.
“When there’s an issue with the World Cup such as an England team under-performance, lawyers need to be involved,” she says. Vleck supported the RFU HR team and chief executive Ian Ritchie on the review and the appointment of Japan head coach Eddie Jones as Lancaster’s replacement. The appointment also required a negotiation with South African rugby team the Stormers, which he was due to join.
“There was a real boost in the office when [Jones’s appointment] was announced,” reveals Vleck, explaining that although Lancaster’s departure was truly by mutual agreement and he was well-liked, the hire was seen as a new start for the England team.
Meanwhile, Vleck is still grappling with some of the issues that were ongoing three years ago, when she was named in the Hot 100. These include ticket touting and ticket sales by secondary providers, which remains a challenge.
“We all hoped the new consumer protection legislation would be the panacea,” says Vleck. “But some secondary ticket providers have just been ignoring the legislation.”
The RFU is also trying to lead the way in its corporate governance and the way it handles on- and off-field discipline – both areas in which Vleck remains heavily involved.
With RWC 2015 over, for the time being it is back to business-as-usual for the RFU. The next big tournament is the Six Nations, giving Jones his first big test. For Vleck and the lawyers across the organisation, 2016 ought to be a little quieter than 2015.
Karena Vleck, general counsel for the Rugby Football Union (RFU), had a stressful but successful 2012, overhauling the inner workings of the organisation.
Calling the end of the Rugby World Cup in 2011 “a particularly low point”, she notes: “Disciplining [the players] for what they did was a marker in the rehabilitation of the RFU in the eyes of the media. We had a big corporate governance review and that went to the council in November and we’re still working on that. We’re quite proud of that review because not many organisations are brave enough to get a firm in and have a completely independent look at themselves.”
She also settled defamation proceedings arising from the leaked Blackett Review into why former RFU chief executive John Steele left the union.
Another triumph is expected in the form of the RFU’s case against secondary ticket vendor Viagogo. The case was brought against the company two and a half years ago with the RFU demanding the identity of ticket holders who had sold their tickets for more than face value on the Viagogo website.
Fast-forward two and a half years and Vleck is still fighting. She says: “We won in the first instance and received £10,000 in coins in a bucket from them in court costs; they’re not even a cash business. They took us to the Court of Appeal and then to the Supreme Court. They have now moved their efforts outside of the jurisdiction to Switzerland and are still fighting.
“It’s the right thing to do for the RFU to look at the secondary market and make sure tickets are affordable. We could charge three times as much as we do, but we don’t because then we would only get corporates coming, not the genuine rugby fans.”