It has taken until 2021 for a black person to run a major sporting governing body in this country – but now proud as the first, new Rugby Football Union chair Tom Ilube is ready to set his vision for the game.
As someone who escaped Idi Amin’s henchmen in 1970s Uganda this will hardly be his toughest challenge.
‘I’m incredibly proud to be taking on this role,’ Ilube said in his first public engagement succeeding Andy Cosslett in March.
Tom Ilube is the first black person to run a major sporting governing body in this country
‘I’m really pleased that rugby was the sport that made someone the first black chair.
‘I’m quite comfortable being that person.’
Born in 1963 to a Nigerian father and British mother Ilube, 58, went to Teddington School – a drop-kick from his office now at Twickenham – but moved to Uganda when his soldier dad was posted there.
‘At the time Idi Amin took over which was quite lively,’ Ilube added.
‘At one point I was tied up and nearly shot by, by security guys, for some random reason.’
After surviving that he thrived first gaining a physics degree in Nigeria, then as a multi-faceted businessman.
Ilube turned out for London Welsh (R) and his son Matthew (L) played for Wasps and Newcastle
Ilube’s impressive cv includes high-powered jobs at British Airways, Goldman Sachs, the London Stock Exchange, and PriceWaterhouseCoopers, he has started schools in Hammersmith, Lancashire and Ghana, was latterly a non-executive director at the BBC and is currently on the board of FTSE 100 company WPP.
A rugby lover at heart, having turned out for London Welsh as a child, he spent 15 years as a ‘touchline dad’ following his son Matthew who was in the Wasps and Newcastle setups.
Now as RFU Chair he knows diversity is high on the agenda. With current England players talking of the game as still having a lingering ‘male, pale and stale’ image, what does Ilube think?
‘There’s this perception in some people’s minds and that doesn’t quite marry up with the reality,’ he answered.
‘Having folk like Ellis Genge and others being really quite confident in the way they talk about their backgrounds is great.
‘I’m not posh, I don’t come from a posh background. I’m a state school educated, foster care kind of guy and I’m chair of the RFU. I think we can change perceptions over time.
‘Talking to black players in the game, they really love rugby and what the game has done for them. Everyone has different views but people feel that the game could do more.
England star Ellis Genge (above) among the players now challenging the image of rugby
‘I was talking to a senior black ex-Army guy who played rugby in his day and he was saying that the leadership qualities and ethos you get in rugby, we should be selling those.
‘Because even if people don’t want to play rugby, if they can absorb those driven, team-focused, win, bounce-back time of qualities, that will have an impact on their lives anyway.’
Admitting he likes winning, Ilube is ambitious about his England teams and the RFU’s future.
He sees a time where the men’s and women’s teams are world champions and wants to host the World Cup in 2031, but believes England does not make the most of its talent.
‘Those that will be in the England team in 2031, who are 12, 13, 14, 15-year-olds today, I really want to have a sense of what journey they’re going on and whether we’re going to produce a whole generation of world class players,’ he said.
‘I’m not certain our system continuously generates those absolutely world class players and I think that if we are going to be at our rightful place, England should consistently be ranked one and two in the world.
‘Year after year after year we should be there and to do that we need that cohort of absolutely world class players so something about the system needs to generate them.’
While this might not look his most daunting challenge, with planning a sustainable way out of Covid, wrestling with diversity, player welfare concerns, booming the women’s game and working out rugby’s place in the calendar, Ilube wants the sport to look forward not back.
New RFU chief sees a time where the men’s and women’s teams are world champions
‘Everyone knows what happened 10, 20, 25 years ago,’ he concluded.
‘Sometimes that’s where the conversations start: “That chap I spoke to him 25 years ago, and we did this…”
‘I hear slightly less conversation of people saying “this is what I think rugby needs to look like by 2030” which isn’t that far ahead.
‘We need a as clear a possible sense of that, and then drive towards it.
‘The game can be a lot bigger than it is now in impact and in money coming into the game.
‘It could be two to three times the scale that that it is now.’
And Ilube’s RFU hope to be at the heart of the changes to come.