Interview: 'What we need are rugby men'

Former England coach says people and not structure are to blame for game's ills. By Andrew Longmore
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The Independent Online
GO PAST the kitchens and take the lift to the third floor, turn left again and walk along the corridor to the end. Geoff Cooke, the sage of English rugby, can be found in a pristine office at the top of the new south stand of Worcester Rugby Centre from where he has an uninterrupted view of a fertile swathe of rugby's future.

He points to a structure which resembles the local bus stop. "That used to be the main grandstand three years ago," he says. Now little Worcester have a ground with a capacity of 5,000, 32 new executive boxes and, after winning seven promotions in 10 seasons, stand on the verge of the Allied Dunbar Premiership One, provided the clubs already there do not turn their backs on the upstarts from the West Midlands. Fran Cotton, chairman of Club England, was a guest of Cooke's at the match against Orrell yesterday and his ears will doubtless still be burning this morning. Cooke has been a vociferous critic of the First Division clubs' attempts to block promotion and relegation for this season, ostensibly in the interests of stability.

Political correctness is not a necessity these days, so Cooke can sound off to his heart's content. That makes him very much more entertaining company than he was during his time as England coach, when every syllable would demand explanation from the bigwigs of the committee rooms or interpretation from the media. His views are worth a decent ear, too, because he has seen the game from every angle, as player, teacher, coach, manager and general factotum. He is 58, silver-haired and well built and his views are delivered in a deep and resonant tone which must have been a formidable asset in gaining the attention of an international dressing-room.

Cooke's England were a tight-knit band who cared little for the niceties of the game or the pockets of the spectators, but worked on the fundamental principle that history remembers winners not stylists. Rob, Will and Deano defined the new age of professionalism long before the first wave of entrepreneurs came thundering over the hill, brandishing their cheque books. And, for all their tedious forward domination, Cooke's teams developed a character sadly lacking in the more cavalier outfits recently dispatched to fulfil the rugby ideals of Clive Woodward.

It is no surprise that rugged victories over New Zealand and France, the latter in the quarter-final of the 1991 World Cup, remain the highlights of his international coaching career. Nul points for artistic merit, but object lessons in the rigid execution of a game-plan. The day before the 15-9 win over the All Blacks, Cooke had been summoned to appear before the Rugby Football Union to explain his strategy for the match. The following day, he watched his plan unfold to the letter.

Cooke chuckles at the irony. "The media told Clive he should be playing a more structured game, when I was in charge they said I was too structured and should get the ball out to the backs more often. Clive had a vision of how he wanted his team to play and I can tell you, honestly, that when I started representative coaching in the Seventies I had the same dream. But I was very quickly disabused of the idea. Unless you have half a dozen outstanding players in key positions you can't do it."

There was no messing about with fly-halves, no last-minute exchanges like Woodward's switching of Jonny Wilkinson and Paul Grayson. Rob Andrew was Cooke's fly-half, his chief executive on the field and that was that. The more mercurial skills of Stuart Barnes, he reckons, would have been ideal for Woodward.

"Instead of trying to get players to play to your vision of the game, you have to say: 'This is what I've got, what can they do well?' Then you try to improve on that and disguise the areas of weakness well enough to give you the win. If England had won the World Cup, no one would have given a stuff how they had played. But I questioned Clive's track record when he was appointed and the harsh reality is that for all the resources at his disposal he hasn't achieved a lot." Ouch. But Cooke's unparalleled record of success in his seven years with England has earned him the right to criticise.

And that's not the end of it. He swats clubs like Harlequins for employing too many foreign coaches, questions the worth of many overseas players in the Premiership, measures the rugby expertise of brash newcomers like Tom Walkinshaw by holding his thumb and forefinger about a millimetre apart, dismisses the fashionable arguments for a British league and savages the myopia of English clubs in sacrificing long-term planning for short- term gain.

His own spell at Bedford proved to be a parable of the lurch towards professionalism. Old club welcomes new owner, new money and new players, old club enjoys temporary success before the bills come in; new owner pulls out leaving old club almost penniless. Cooke left Bedford bitter and disillusioned. He is still in litigation with Frank Warren, the boxing promoter, over unpaid compensation and was only drawn back to the game he has loved since boyhood by the ambitions of Cecil Duckworth, the chairman of Worcester, and the work already done at Worcester by the former England fly-half Les Cusworth. If rugby is to survive as a pro game long into the next century, this is how it should be done, with some pretence at trying to make financial ends meet without the aid of a benefactor's wallet.

"The whole package of rugby here, that's what I like. We run three ladies' teams, 400 kids and their parents come through here every Sunday morning, we have amateur teams and a strong development programme up to the first team. It's the way a rugby club used to be. How many Premiership One clubs can match the training facilities or the conference facilities we have here? It's a bit of an exaggeration, but many of them are almost single- team clubs."

Wisely, Andrew, chairman of the task force commissioned by Club England to provide a blueprint for a national structure, has already tapped Cooke's wealth of experience and plain common sense. Much of what Cooke sees as a viable way forward for the clubs can be found in the panorama beneath his window. England, he feels, should be looking at the key people in the rugby hierarchy before redesigning the domestic and international structure. "I don't think we're that far away," he says. "We have to be very careful we don't see changing the structure as the panacea for all ills. It's not the structure, it's the people. The key is to get the right people who understand the whole notion of developing a rugby player. The problem is there are not many about." So who's the best coach in the country? "I don't know. What's a good coach? People I respect are coaches like Dick Best, Nigel Melville is one of the better of the younger ones, Rob could be a critical figure in the future if he wants to be. He's someone I'd be looking to put a lot of faith in because he's bright and he sees the big picture. Dean Richards understands his area of play, but whether he could be in charge of a whole team, I don't know.

"Rugby is a game of starting points, so you can put your players where you want. Structure two phases of play and then play with your heads up. The problem is that British players aren't very good at that, because not enough time is spent on decision-making all the way through the coaching system. The problem for the clubs is managing to keep a balance, the development of a talented 16-year-old might take five years and in that time, the club might have gone down to the third division. I'm not sure how to break out of that sort of cycle."

Not by ring-fencing the top clubs or establishing a British League, Cooke believes. "Maybe money should be diverted to help a promoted club and a relegated club. It's not beyond the wit of man to devise a way through. But why should Harlequins have the right to stay in the Premiership? What are they doing for English rugby? We've got the nucleus of a good domestic competition, I'd like to see an expanded European league with a knockout cup competition as well. A British league would only duplicate what should happen in Europe." His message to Tom Walkinshaw, the bullying Gloucester chairman, who claims to have a British league signed, sealed and delivered, is stark. "Go away and start talking to some people who know about the game." If he accepts the offer, Cooke will be waiting.