Jeff Blackett becomes 4th ‘Navy’ President of the Rugby Football Union

Following a Rugby Football Union Annual General Meeting like no other, where Covid-19 requirements forced the meeting to go online, His Honour Judge Jeff Blackett, was elected to be the 111th President of the Union; the fourth member of the Royal Navy Rugby Union to have held this prestigious position.  Jeff’s election to President comes twenty years after he was first selected to represent the RNRU on the RFU Council in 2000 where he served for four years before remaining on Council as the RFU’s Disciplinary Officer and more recently in a co-opted role.  Like his two immediate ‘Navy’ RFU President predecessors Jeff, as Sole Selector, delivered an Inter Service title an achievement he also enjoyed as a player and as RNRU Chairman.  His Presidential year is certainly going to be unique as rugby looks to re-establish itself following the hiatus caused by the Covid-19 pandemic.

Jeff’s rugby cv is long and varied which includes success as a player, selector and as an accomplished administrator.  His first taste of representative rugby for the Royal Navy was in 1974, an Inter Service winning year for the Senior XV, but a year when Jeff made his Colts debut in the famous dark blue jersey.  He caught the eye of Admiral Ted Horlick (capped in 1948, chairman in 1976 and made a Life Member in 1983) that day and probably little expected to frequent Ted’s company at RNRU Life Member’s dinners when he too was made a Life Member on leaving the Service in 2003. Between representing the Navy as an U19 and leaving as a Life Member, Jeff managed to play in two Army v Navy matches including being part of the 1981 Inter Services winning side led by Steve Hughes.  Having hung up his boots he was appointed as the Royal Navy Rugby Union Selector in 1994 and enjoyed watching another Royal Marine captaining the Navy, Corin Palmer, lift the Inter Services title in 1995.  Then finally, during his time as Chairman, Jeff was a Twickenham to see Dan Parkes lift the 2001 Inter Services title.  From Midshipman to Commodore, from Colt to Chairman, Navy Rugby had been a constant companion to Jeff as he rose to become the Director of Naval Legal Services before leaving the Royal Navy to become the Judge Advocate General.

Despite success on the playing field Jeff, by common consent, has made his biggest contribution to the wider Game in his various roles as an administrator.  As was the case with Navy Rugby’s first RFU President, Admiral Sir Percy Royds, Jeff has always been an advocate for progress and advancement.  Whilst Royds is remembered for his work on the Laws of the Game and also his role in the development of physical training in the Naval Service, so Jeff has been heavily involved with developing how the Laws of the Game (and indeed its Rules) are administered and where required enforced. In 2003 he was appointed the Rugby Football Union’s Honorary Disciplinary Officer, a role he held for over a decade until restructuring replaced the role with an independent head of judiciary.  Throughout his time Jeff was involved in a number of high-profile rugby cases during a time when the Game was still coming to terms with the impact of professionalism.  One of the changes that was implemented was a significant increase in transparency with more and more of the previously ‘behind closed doors’ hearings and investigations now having their judgements published and made available for wider scrutiny.  One wonders how the Navy’s 2nd RFU President, Ginger Osbourne, would have handled such scrutiny when as Team Manager for the 1950 British Lions he had to defuse the famous horse in a hotel room ‘diplomatic incident’ whilst on tour in New Zealand!

Though heavily involved with disciplinary administration Jeff kept in touch with the playing side of Navy Rugby by proxy, through his son Will, who, also in 2003, was selected for the Royal Navy team that won the Navies Commonwealth Cup held in Auckland.  On returning Will’s Naval career restricted him to intermittent seasons with United Services RFC with dad, who was to become club President, often on the touchline.  Will, currently Commanding Officer of HMS Lancaster, joined dad Jeff, then RFU Vice President, last season as part of a tree planting on behalf of the RFU.  The Royal Navy Rugby Grove, sponsored by the Woodland Trust, was commissioned by Jeff and is dedicated to all rugby players from the Royal Navy and in particular Lt Cdr Arthur Harrison VC RN who was killed in action at Zeebrugge, 23 April 1918.  Like Jeff and Will, Harrison was a US Portsmouth man and one of two players from the club to win the Victoria Cross.

As a judicial officer, Jeff has served at three World Cups, including England’s winning campaign in 2003.  Sydney 2003 is probably best remembered for that famous Wilkinson drop goal, but the morning of the final saw Jeff living by the Navy’s mantra of ‘all of one company’ and also demonstrating a ‘can do’ attitude.  When faced with a late and unexpected request for a ticket for the final from a ‘matelot on tour’ a remarkably swift work up was undertaken transforming beachwear of singlet and shorts to blazer, collar and tie in quick order as a ‘tinnie’ and big screen was replaced by hospitality and best seats in the house.  For most the Kerry Packer Circus refers to a cricket experience but to a few it was a hectic morning that ensured there was one extra sailor in the ground as England won the cup.

Having stepped down from the role of RFU Honorary Disciplinary Officer, Jeff continued as a co-opted member on the Rugby Football Union Council and went on to Chair the important Governance Committee before being appointed on to the board of directors in 2014.  In 2016 he was appointed as the Chair of the Professional Game Board, the organisation charged with monitoring all issues to do with playing professional rugby in England.  During his 2 years as chairman major reforms and development of the pathway for young professional players were implemented, probably of Mike Pearey, who 30 years before Jeff had become the RNRU’s 3rd RFU President.

When Jeff was made Junior Vice President, some two years ago, he probably had a reasonable idea what his year as president of the largest rugby union would involve.  Being the figure head for an organisation that has over 2.5 million players spread across 2,000 clubs and 1600 schools and colleges that harnesses the energy of over 100,000 volunteers ensures that the tempo each year is largely unchanging.  Instead Jeff will become the 1st President in the post Covid-19 era as rugby looks to re-generate itself after an unprecedented shock to its continued growth as a sport.  His is sure to be a presidential year like no other but one in which he will no doubt relish the challenges that are thrown up.  The challenges are certain to be far greater than getting someone into hospitality seating at a World Cup final but the Navy’s ‘Can Do Attitude’ will still apply.

Congratulations to Jeff, from all at the Royal Navy Rugby Union, on becoming President of the Rugby Football Union and all hope that you and Sally have a memorable and enjoyable year.

Image credit: © Leo Wilkinson / RFU
By line: Geraint Ashton Jones