RFU embarrassed by Rowell speculation

Rugby Union
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Confusion is reigning once again and the Rugby Football Union, already staring down both barrels of the Cliff Brittle shotgun at today's annual general meeting, are likely to get a severe soaking. Less than 48 hours before England's desperately difficult one-off Test with Australia here, the beleaguered Twickenham power-brokers have contrived to undermine Jack Rowell's position as national coach in the most embarrassing possible circumstances.

Derek Morgan, chairman of the national playing committee, yesterday vehemently denied reports that Rowell was about to be replaced by Graham Henry, the tactical mastermind from New Zealand whose Auckland side claimed their second successive Super 12 title last month. At the same time, Don Rutherford, the RFU's technical director, was admitting holding talks with Henry, although he stressed that neither a formal job description nor a firm offer had been offered.

In the midst of all the shenanigans, Rowell was looking increasingly isolated, not to say bemused. His coaching contract does not expire until 31 August and understandably, he was not in the best of moods when Rutherford arrived in Sydney for tomorrow's Cook Cup match with the Wallabies.

Rutherford insisted his talks with Henry and a second senior Auckland coach, Maurice Trapp, had been merely exploratory. "We are looking to strengthen our coaching set-up," he said. "England have a good many representative sides and there may be any number of roles available." Whether that was sufficient to mollify Rowell remained a moot point.

In a desperate attempt at damage limitation the RFU last night issued a statement on Rutherford's behalf. "A professional game needs the best people involved," Rutherford was reported to have said. "Some will be English and some will not... but at the present time I do not believe the English culture is ready for a non-English coach."

Morgan was equally insistent that Rowell's position remained secure, if only in the shortest of short terms. "No one has been asked or authorised to make an approach to any other coach," he said, prompting the question as to why Rutherford had been in New Zealand in the first place. "No formal discussion of or decision on the coaching position will take place until the team and management return from Australia." As a denial, it was barely worth the effort. Henry has admitted receiving approaches from "outside New Zealand" and as England return home on Monday morning, developments could be extremely swift.

The most successful coach in the history of English club rugby, Rowell's record at international level also bears compari- son with the best. But his reluctance to turn his back on business interests to take up the reins on a full-time basis leaves him vulnerable to the demands of the new professional age. Rowell believes he can square the circle, but the weight of influential opinion is against him.

Back in January, the RFU were forced to deny allegations of a plot to sideline their coach before of the Five Nations' Championship. This time, they will have to work doubly hard to reassure Rowell that he retains the faith of his employers.

Thinking of England, page 29