Pioneer on new ground

Rugby Union: Owen Slot talks to Rob Andrew about his life as a recruitment officer; Newcastle's director of rugby lifts the lid on a turbulent year as he prepares for a Twickenham return
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The Independent Online
THE fixture list on Saturday presents something of a conundrum for Rob Andrew. England at home, Wasps at home, Newcastle away - eight weeks ago, he could have been playing for any of them. But when England play Western Samoa and Wasps, his old team, take on Newcastle, his new club, Andrew will not be playing at all. From the commentary box at Twickenham he can contemplate the changes in his life: player to director of rugby, southerner to northerner, international player to international pundit. It has been a bewildering transformation.

The media's stare has rarely been averted but last week, for the first time, Andrew gave his own full version of recent events - of the part he played in the failed Kerry Packer rugby circus, of his mission to assemble the best team in the country at Newcastle, and of the barbs that followed his retirement from a record-breaking international career that saw him portrayed as hero or anti-hero and little inbetween.

He was in his house in Pinner in Middlesex, a modest semi- detached which is to be exchanged for a life in the north once his daughter's school term is over and his family can move up permanently. While he talked he was distracted by the television where Michael Atherton was hard at work in South Africa compiling one of the greatest Test innings. Here was an England star out of the same mould - the antithesis of flamboyance, studied in his talent, determined to ride out the criticism but capable of the epic - and Andrew had to keep in touch.

It was in South Africa, at the World Cup, that his own voyage towards a life in profesional sport began. Andrew always assumed that he would miss out on the rewards that professional rugby would eventually bring, but Packer's World Rugby Championship suggested otherwise. "By the night of the World Cup final, at a dinner attended by the semi-final teams," he said, "that was the only thing the four sides were talking about."

Back in England, Andrew led the negotiations with Brian Moore, an involvement which surprised many as it gradually became public; Andrew had always been perceived as an establishment figure. "But our participation has been misunderstood," he said. "Nobody was actually recruiting for anybody. But you have to talk to people and find out what's on offer. We were talking to our players just as we were to Pienaar, to Fitzpatrick, to the Aussies, to the French and there was a group of us weighing things up.

"On several occasions, yes, it looked quite likely that it was going to go ahead. But Brian and I always said to our guys that we didn't think it would, because the southern hemisphere unions had the trump card which was the Murdoch money. If the southern hemisphere players had said 'We're going for it', then there would have been a chance. The moment they said no, it was off."

At this stage, Andrew and Moore also withdrew from separate negotiations with the RFU. "We'd spent eight weeks battling it out," he said, "and we both just said that we couldn't do it any more. At that point, I thought I'd keep playing for Wasps and hopefully for England as long as I'm required, and if I get 10 grand for playing for England - fine - 20 grand, 30 grand, whatever. I'm just going to play and then it'll all come to an end and I'll carry on working."

It was only a month later, however, that Andrew and Sara, his wife, were watching a news broadcast about Sir John Hall's purchase of Newcastle Gosforth. Sara predicted light-heartedly that Andrew would soon be asked to be "the Kevin Keegan of the rugby team". And he was, the very next day; and 10 days later he agreed to go.

Andrew then set about breaking the new ground that the new "open" game allowed - recruiting a team - and club chairmen around the country squealed when they discovered their players were targets. "I didn't feel that what I was doing was clandestine in any way," he said. "Recruitment has been going on for 10 years; I've been helping to recruit players to Wasps since I've been there. For club chairmen to complain that their players were being poached was hilarious.

"Wherever the bleating came from, it was always hypocritical, particularly from Bristol when I approached Garath Archer and Martin Corry who had only been poached from Newcastle in the summer. They were bleating down the road too at West Hartlepool [who lost Richard Metcalfe and Richard Arnold back to Newcastle] and at Leicester, it was ironic that Tony Russ should give us stick when we then went to get Tony Underwood. Wasps had nearly lost Andy Gomarsall to Leicester during the summer; Leicester were all over him and he very nearly went."

Andrew's only regret has been the manner of his departure from Wasps: he recruited Dean Ryan and Steve Bates to Newcastle and Wasps then showed him the door. "Perhaps, naively to begin with," he said, "I thought that I could carry on. I'm not saying I would have done it any differently; I don't think I could have done. The moment I signed at Newcastle, I never had any doubt that they were the two people I wanted with me. I suppose in hindsight it was obvious that Wasps weren't going to be terribly happy, but after eight years there, it was a bit of a messy end."

The end at Wasps precipitated Andrew's retirement from international rugby, a decision he insists he has never yet regretted. "Perhaps the Wasps thing was a blessing in disguise," he said. "It made up my mind. I had two weeks when I was trying to juggle Wasps, Newcastle and England, so perhaps the Wasps thing saved me from running into a brick wall. And there was so much speculation in any case about whether it was time that I moved on, whether the England team should change its style."

Ah yes, that style thing. For much of Andrew's career it was debated, and when the career was over, the debate continued. Thank you for everything, particularly for that drop-goal, the consensus said, but it was time to broaden the game. Even Andrew's team agreed: Mike Catt said it and his criticism echoed the views already expressed in Jeremy Guscott's autobiography.

And Andrew himself? He is not the sort to be disturbed by an international gravestone bearing such an epitaph. "I saw Mike in the build-up to the South Africa game," he said, "we had a chat and there's no big deal. Mike had a lot of pressure on him before the game with him going to fly-half and the media had built this thing about the new England style without really understanding what they were saying. The players have just got to realise not to get lulled into a wave of euphoria about this magic way to play.

"You can't play one way week-in week-out and then step up to the international stage and wave a magic wand. That's what happened in the 1991 World Cup final when we should have shoved it up our jumpers and kicked it up in the air and done exactly as we had done in the previous games. We got carried away on this wave of 'Let's go for it' and I feel there's an element of that around now. Beautiful, flowing, runaway wins don't happen very easily; international sport is not like that, it's not that romantic."

Not that Newcastle's approach will mirror England's. "There is a dynamic style that we want to produce," he said, talking of the rugby Wasps played last season, of the roles of Bates and Ryan within it and of how they were essential to the future at Newcastle. "I'm not sure too many clubs in this country really understand what they're trying to do," he said. It was quite clear that at Newcastle they do.