It took until 2021 for a black person to lead a major sports governing body in this country – but now proudly as the first, new Rugby Football Union president, Tom Ilube, is ready to set his vision for the game.
As someone who escaped Idi Amin’s henchmen in 1970s Uganda, this will not be his biggest challenge.
“I am incredibly proud to take on this role,” Ilube said in his first public engagement as Andy Cosslett’s successor in March.
Tom Ilube is the first black person to lead a major sports board in this country
“I’m very happy that rugby was the sport that turned someone into 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 in Twickenham – but moved to Uganda when his soldier father was posted there.
“At that time, Idi Amin took over, which was quite lively,” Ilube added.
“At one point, for some reason, I was tied up and almost shot at by security people.”
After surviving that, he flourished first earning a physics degree in Nigeria and then as a versatile businessman.
Ilube played for London Welsh (R) and his son Matthew (L) played for Wasps and Newcastle
Ilube’s impressive resume includes top positions at British Airways, Goldman Sachs, the London Stock Exchange and PriceWaterhouseCoopers, he has started schools in Hammersmith, Lancashire and Ghana, was most recently a non-executive director at the BBC and is currently on the board of the FTSE 100- company WPP.
A rugby lover at heart, having played 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 institutions.
Now as RFU chairman, he knows that diversity is high on the agenda. What does Ilube think, with today’s English players talking about the game as still having a lingering ‘masculine, pale and old’ image?
“Some people have an image and it doesn’t quite match reality,” he replied.
“It’s great that people like Ellis Genge and others are very confident in the way they talk about their backgrounds.
‘I’m not genteel, I don’t come from a genteel background. I am a public school educated foster care kind of man and I am the president of the RFU. I think we can change perceptions over time.
“When I talk to black players in the game, they really like rugby and what the game has done for them. Everyone has different views, but people feel the game could do more.
“I spoke to a senior black ex-army man who played rugby in his day and he said the leadership skills and ethos you get in rugby we should sell it.
“Because even if people don’t want to play rugby, if they can absorb that driven, team-oriented, winning, rebounding time of qualities, it’s going to have an impact on their lives anyway.”
England star Ellis Genge (above) among the players now challenging the image of rugby
Ilube admits he likes to win but is ambitious about his England teams and the future of the RFU.
He sees a time when the men’s and women’s teams are world champions and wants to organize the World Cup in 2031, but believes that England is not making the most of his talent.
“Those who will be on the England team in 2031, who are 12, 13, 14, 15 year olds today, I really want to have an idea of what journey they are going and if we are going to produce a whole generation of world class players,” he said. he.
“I’m not sure that our system is constantly generating those absolutely world-class players and I think if we want to be in our rightful place, England needs to be consistently first and second 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 in the system has to generate them.”
While this may not seem like his most daunting challenge, with planning a sustainable way out of Covid, grappling with diversity, concerns about player wellbeing, growing the women’s game and fleshing out rugby’s place on the calendar, Ilube wants that the sport looks forward and not backwards.
“Everyone knows what happened 10, 20, 25 years ago,” he concluded.
“Sometimes that’s where the conversations start: “That guy I talked to him 25 years ago, and we did this…”
“I hear slightly fewer conversations from people saying ‘I think that’s what rugby should look like in 2030’, which is not that far ahead.
‘We have to have as clear a picture as possible, and then drive there.
“The game could be much bigger than it is now in impact and in money coming into play.
“It could be two or three times the size it is now.”
And Ilube’s RFU hopes to be at the center of the changes to come.