Rugby Union: Andrew's task to find third way

England's former man at No 10 has to marry Woodward's world view with clubs' commercial needs
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The Independent Online
ROB ANDREW is rapidly emerging as a key figure in the development of a coherent strategy for English rugby into the next millennium. As chairman of the task force delegated by Fran Cotton's Club England to frame a competitive structure for the game over the next seven years, Andrew will have considerable influence on the way rugby responds to the crushing disappointment of the World Cup. But he will need the diplomatic skills of Henry Kissinger and the political astuteness of Peter Mandelson to reconcile the differing interests of club and country, amateur and professional.

On the one hand, he has Clive Woodward on his committee, whose idea of heaven would be to coach a squad of fully paid- up employees of the Rugby Football Union otherwise known as the England rugby team; on the other, Nigel Wray, one of the more committed and intelligent of the Allied Dunbar Premiership club owners, who wants to see some return on his considerable investment in the club game. Four years on from the dawn of the professional era would seem a relatively daft time to be considering the future, but that has always been the way with the northern hemisphere. Trial and error, with the accent on the latter.

Andrew's credentials for brokering a realistic compromise between the various factions are close to being impeccable. There is enough light blue in his background to placate the establishment, enough steel in his playing armoury to satisfy the workers and more than enough medals in his sock drawer, as player and coach, to guarantee respect from all quarters of the game and all sections of the media.

Having accepted Sir John Hall's vision of Newcastle Sporting Club, Andrew has been at the heart of professional rugby's most celebrated experiment. A blank piece of paper, a new team and an open wallet one moment, budget cuts, downsizing and unit costs the next. He was champion in 1997-98 with Newcastle, who came within days of being disbanded when Hall pulled his money out soon after and, following an uneasy mid-table time last year, are now languishing perilously close to the relegation zone in the Allied Dunbar Premiership. One of Andrew's priorities is to establish a financially sound base so that clubs no longer have to rely on the whims of their fast-buck owners. He estimates pounds 100m has been thrown away already.

"What rugby has to do is stand back and look at what we've done over the past four years, which has been headless-chicken stuff," Andrew said recently. "Let's see what's worked, what hasn't and what we want. I keep coming back to the same old theme. We want a successful England team and a professional structure beneath the national side which supports it, but one that also allows professional teams to be viable and vibrant." Easier said than done, of course, even for England's blue-eyed boy.

At international level, Woodward is known to favour a return to the old-style division between coach and manager. The manager would deal with the politics and provide the best possible working conditions for the coach, who would have sole charge of the coaching and selection of the team. It is probable that the England coach strongly proposed such a solution in his recent report on England's World Cup campaign. On many occasions during his two years as head coach, like Graham Henry in Wales, Woodward has become frustrated at having to do two jobs in one, and though he had nothing but praise for the licence and funding his World Cup preparations were accorded by the RFU, he believes that having the elite players controlled by the clubs, not from the centre, is tantamount to fighting the southern hemisphere countries, whose players are contracted to their boards and then loaned out to the clubs, with one arm tied behind your back.

Top of England's shopping list over the next six months might not then be a new elite performance director, who will not have anyone to direct, but a top- class hands-on international coach. Whether there is such a strange creature in this country is open to debate. Nigel Melville at Wasps, Andrew himself and Dean Richards at Leicester, names mentioned in dispatches recently, are better suited to the role of manager than tracksuit coach.

A known admirer of Rod Macqueen, head coach of the World Champions, Woodward tried to mimic the organisational structure of the Australians and the back-seat management style of Macqueen himself. Woodward's point is that the Martin Johnsons and Matt Perrys would still play much of their rugby with the clubs, but that their schedules for work, rest and play would be guided by the demands of the international team, not the need to put bums on seats at Welford Road or the Recreation Ground.

Andrew's idea of the way forward is to establish a professional league of a dozen clubs, well spread geographically, each acting as a regional centre of excellence to represent the pinnacle of rugby in the area. At the top would be a body independent of the clubs and the RFU who would run the professional game, leaving the RFU to concentrate on the structure below the elite. There would be no room for the sort of parochialism or envy which Newcastle's rise prompted in the early days, nor for the naked self-interest displayed by both clubs and RFU in recent years.

Clubs like West Hartlepool, Andrew says, who have been almost destroyed by the pressures of professionalism, would stay largely amateur and act as feeder clubs into the regional super club. But there would also be a degree of fluidity for clubs like Worcester, who have earned the right to graduate to the top level. A closed shop, like the southern hemisphere's TV- dominated Super 12, infringes Andrew's idea of democracy and, as New Zealand are beginning to find, can stifle development below the top level.

Other areas which will come under the Task Force's intense scrutiny are the overloaded international calendar, with the current schedule reduced from 12 Tests to a maximum of nine a year, and the format of the Six Nations' championship, which could be condensed from three down to one and a half months.

It is a considerable agenda and time is tight. But while the World Cup is fresh in the mind, the spirit is right for change. Next season is the last in the present deal with Sky and Andrew's masters want a new framework in place by the start of the 2001 season. Better late than never, Andrew would say. But on his ability to tread through the minefield of conflicting interests hangs the future welfare of English rugby. Kicking drop goals to beat Australia will seem a doddle in comparison.