Sponsors grouse at slurring SRU boss

A DRUNKEN Scottish rugby chief tried to "browbeat" the game’s most generous sponsor into supplying free whisky in an embarrassing encounter in a Paris hotel, Scotland on Sunday can reveal.

Colin Fisher, a member of the crisis-hit Scottish Rugby Union’s executive board, begged a female executive of the Famous Grouse brand to hand out bottles of the spirit to coaches - against the company’s rules.

In an e-mail seen by Scotland on Sunday, Famous Grouse sponsorship manager Tara Kildare accuses Fisher of being obviously inebriated when he approached her at the hotel bar. She says he was "slurring" his words and "in no fit state" to carry out a business discussion. She complained he repeatedly called her "hen" throughout the conversation.

The e-mail is understood to have caused serious concern in parts of the SRU because the Edrington Group, which owns Famous Grouse, ploughs hundreds of thousands of pounds into SRU coffers every year.

Details of the row have emerged as the SRU struggles to recover from a civil war which resulted in the exit of the chairman and chief executive in January, and has been partially blamed for a run of poor performances by Scotland.

In her e-mail - sent to David James, the SRU’s then sponsorship manager - Kildare complains bitterly about Fisher’s behaviour in Paris.

She claims Fisher had asked for some whisky to hand out to adult coaches at a children’s rugby event - a request that had already been turned down because Famous Grouse cannot be associated as sponsors with anyone under the legal drinking age.

She wrote: "When I arrived in the bar at the Ambassador [a Paris hotel] on Friday evening, Colin was already in the bar. He was very obviously under the influence of alcohol and his opening line to me when I got to the bar was: ‘I’ve got a bone to pick with you’.

"He then spent the next 15 minutes trying to persuade me to change my mind and give him the whisky. He was in no fit state to try and carry out a business discussion - he was slurring his words and had already spilt some of his drink down the front of his sweater. He referred to me as Sara, which is an easy mistake to make, but he also referred to me as ‘hen’, which was not very professional.

"Don’t get me wrong, he was not physically abusive and he didn’t swear - but I was uncomfortable with the conversation. He seemed to be under the impression that brow-beating would get him the result he wanted, and after I had excused myself and sat down he said to Alex [another Famous Grouse executive], ‘I’ll give her a few days and then I’ll nail her’.

"I also objected to the inference that if we just didn’t tell anybody that I’d given him whisky for a kids’ tournament that it would be OK."

The incident took place before a Six Nations Championship match in the French capital two years ago, but details of the complaint against Fisher, then a member of the union’s 14-strong general committee, have only now come to light. SRU sources said last night that despite the close link between Famous Grouse and the union, Kildare had not spoken to Fisher since.

But an insider said it appeared the SRU’s ruling committee had taken no action against Fisher. One observer said: "If they did rap Fisher over the knuckles then no one got to know about it."

The emergence of the e-mail will further strain the relationship between the SRU - which is in crisis after the sacking of its chairman and the resignation in protest of its chief executive - and its biggest sponsor.

Edrington pays about 750,000 a year to have its brand emblazoned across the team’s dark-blue strip. Although it says its sponsorship will continue until 2007 and the next World Cup, there are doubts about whether its contract will be renewed following the management upheaval. Kildare recently warned: "The future of our relationship depends on how long this trouble goes on and how it detracts from the Six Nations Championship."

Fisher is a businessman and former international hooker who represents the Exiles on the union’s executive board. The Exiles embrace the London Scottish club and various age-group sides in England.

David Mackay, a former John Menzies chief, was appointed chairman at the end of 2003 with a reforming brief. Mackay is widely credited with slashing the SRU’s annual losses and appointing Phil Anderton, formerly of Coca-Cola, as chief executive.

But Scotland on Sunday revealed in January that there had been a long bout of infighting last year between paid officials and non-paid committee members over expenses bills incurred while on SRU business.

Concerns centred on the rocketing expenses bill for committee members - up to 180,000 last year - with the bill for entertaining and "out of pocket" expenses exceeding 18,000. This was in addition to the 60,000 tab for hospitality at each of the four home internationals. There was particular concern about one four-figure hotel bill racked up by a committee member at Edinburgh’s Roxburghe Hotel.

The infighting culminated in the dismissal of Mackay in January by the 14-strong committee, which includes Fisher, following a vote of no confidence. Four days later Anderton, who was last week appointed chief executive of Hearts Football Club, resigned, saying that member clubs should revolt against Mackay’s sacking. He also revealed that two planned six-figure sponsorship deals had collapsed as a result of the row.

Anderton privately told friends that "the start of the trouble" at the SRU was when he and Mackay decided the expenses bill had to be halved.

Fisher is now one of two members of the old committee who have been made part of the SRU’s new executive board. A temporary chairman has been appointed while the search for a new chief executive continues.

Contacted yesterday, Fisher said he had no recollection of the incident but apologised if there had been any misunderstanding. He said: "I definitely did not browbeat her, it was a misunderstanding of my sense of humour. One of the things I pride myself in is the maintenance of the highest standards of courtesy."

Kildare could not be contacted for comment.