High-flier risks England low

Chris Rea assesses the impact of Rob Andrew's move to Tyneside: Jack Rowell must determine whether career move will harm the international prospects of an outstanding stand-off
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The Independent Online
NOTHING during the most turbulent and bizarre month in rugby union history has quite matched Rob Andrew's decision to accept the post as Newcastle's director of rugby. There are, of course, three-quarters of a million reasons why a highly qualified chartered surveyor heading for the top of his profession should choose rugby above the protection of the nation's architectural heritage, but it is an extraordinary development with ramifications far beyond personal and local interest. The immediate concern for the England player is whether his intended move will jeopardise his international career. The chances are that it will.

Even if Wasps do continue to select Andrew for the Courage League side during the 120-day qualification period, Jack Rowell, England's manager, must know that once Andrew gets to Newcastle his mind will be firmly focused on other things. Inevitably, his priorities will change and by attempting to do his best for Newcastle he may not be doing the best for himself. One of Andrew's greatest strengths has been his almost obsessive commitment to his sport whether it be in matters of personal fitness, kicking practice or the bloody-minded determination to prove his detractors wrong.

Presumably, those were the very qualities which persuaded Sir John Hall to employ him and it is hard to think of anyone better suited to the job than Andrew. But this will be his most challenging role yet, demanding all his famed powers of concentration and absolute dedication. Something will have to give and the likelihood is that it will be his own game. It will be easily good enough for second division Newcastle but not, I suspect, for England seeking their fourth Grand Slam in six years and embarking on the rebuilding process for the next World Cup.

Against that, when Rowell selects his squad which will be announced later this week for the two pre-Christmas internationals against South Africa and Western Samoa, his primary concern will be to pick a side capable of beating the reigning world champions, and thereby re-establishing England's credentials, so badly tarnished last summer, as a credible force in the world game.

Between now and 1999 Rowell will have to make changes in almost every department, from full-back where Mike Catt's South African experience cast doubts on his long-term future in the position, to tight-head prop where Victor Ubogu's intermittent explosiveness in the loose no longer compensates for his shortcomings in the tight. There will perforce be changes on the wing, No 8 and hooker where Rory Underwood, Dean Richards and Brian Moore are coming to the end of their international careers. In addition, it is more than likely that a replacement will have to be found for at least one of the centre positions where England do at least appear to have reasonable cover. But by far the most pressing need for Rowell is to find a settled combination at half-back.

If Andrew's new responsibilities with Newcastle remove him from the equation, Rowell is left with a straight choice between Catt and David Pears. Given that Rowell will also have to find a reliable goal-kicker to replace Andrew, Pears would appear to be an automatic choice either at fly-half where he has already performed with supreme efficiency, albeit with a certain reluctance. My guess is that Rowell will opt for Pears at fly-half but that may be marginally influenced by the personal view that Catt's best position is in the centre. The two scrum-halves in favour are Kyran Bracken and Andy Gomarsall whose inexperience was exposed at the Stoop last week. I still believe, however, that the most talented scrum-half in England is Northampton's Matt Dawson.

Elsewhere, Rowell can be expected to take a conservative line, at least against the Springboks, delaying the introduction of any fresh talent until the Western Samoa game. But the imminent announcement of the national squad cannot compete with the momentous happenings of the past week. Sir John Hall's venture with Newcastle has raised the stakes far beyond the pockets of any other rugby club in the land. There are rumours that Saracens are in clandestine talks with Arsenal, that Martin Edwards is mobilising his forces at Old Trafford and that Accrington Stanley have been put on red alert. It is only a matter of time before the Newcastle initiative is taken up by the country's other main centres and that the traditional clubs will be replaced by Manchester, Leeds, Birmingham and London. Then we would have a domestic and European competition worth talking about.