Rugby Union: Best fires untimely broadside at Rowell

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English rugby's extraordinary ability to walk straight from one public relations disaster to another reached new levels of expertise yesterday as Dick Best, a former national coach and current top dog at the League leaders Harlequins, took an embarrassing swipe at the entire Twickenham hierarchy.

Just 48 hours before England's opening international of the season against Italy, Best claimed that the Rugby Football Union had little faith in Jack Rowell, the present coach, and described an unspecified number of RFU members as "gutless".

Coming on top of the governing body's bitter wrangle with its own senior clubs, Best's outburst was further proof that it would be easier to find a sense of harmony at The Ridings School in Halifax.

Yesterday should have been about Chris Sheasby, the Wasps' loose-forward who was called up to face the Italians when Ben Clarke's dead leg forced his withdrawal from the side.

Sheasby will win his first cap in his customary position of No 8, with Tim Rodber shifting to the blindside flank. Martin Corry, the Bristol captain, comes in on the bench.

Sadly, Sheasby's delight was undermined by Best's decision to plant a depth-charge directly beneath the Good Ship England.

In an interview with the magazine Rugby News he said: "I don't think Rowell will be either coach or manager by the time of the next World Cup in 1999. The RFU have got to invest in him but the problem is I don't believe they have much faith in him. You don't give someone a one-year contract if you have confidence in him, do you? It tells me that at the end of the season it's probably `Goodnight Irene'."

Best, who lost his own coaching role with England when Rowell reshuffled his panel after the 1994 tour of South Africa, has thrown darts at his old adversary before. This time, however, he opted for the flame-thrower by saying: "He avoids me at all costs. Rowell has avoided confrontation all his life - he did not even tell me himself that I was out - and that is why he has never spoken to me since I was dismissed. He has never telephoned me about my Harlequins players. He just can't bring himself to do it."

At least some of the players who participated in the 1994 tour privately believe that Best was badly treated; others, on the other hand, found the whiff of sour grapes almost overpowering yesterday. Understandably, even the most senior squad members decided to keep their counsel, but both Rowell and the RFU felt compelled to respond.

The coach was clearly not amused as he put his players through their paces at Twickenham - "I don't understand the motivation of people who seek to disrupt the national team," he said - while Derek Morgan, chairman of the National Playing Committee, insisted that the RFU was "wholeheartedly behind Jack and his team". RFU sources said they would be studying Best's comments before deciding whether he might be charged with bringing the game into disrepute.

Sheasby added to the furore by saying that his close-season move from Harlequins to Wasps had been crucial in his elevation from club player to international. "If I had stayed at Harlequins, I would have been pushed by certain people and that would not have gone down well with England in the current climate," he said. Clearly, Sheasby believes that any recommendation from Best would have been disregarded by Rowell.

Somewhere in the midst of the gunsmoke, Phil de Glanville was attempting to assert his authority as England's new captain by focusing the minds of his players on the task in hand. As ever, the coolly collected Bath centre was a paragon of diplomacy - as far as we are concerned, this is a non-issue, he said. But there was no hiding the hint of frustration in his voice.

With five new caps in the side, De Glanville has enough on his plate without having to digest unpalatable attacks by former coaches. He is, however, sufficiently skilled as a leader to turn negatives into positives; if his players were not climbing the walls to get at Italy before Best's intervention, they certainly are now.

"Winning is the first and only priority," the captain said. "We need the new guys to contribute from minute one. There will be no honeymoon period for them. It has to be straight in because the Italians are very skilled at half-back, well organised defensively and are capable of playing some fantastic rugby.

"If there was ever any complacency in this camp, it's now long gone. To my mind, the Italians are good enough to turn the Five Nations tournament into a Six Nations and they will be coming here to prove exactly that."

The Italians, who suffered complications of their own yesterday as their planned flight from Florence was cancelled at short notice, will not experience Twickenham at its most intimidating. Only 40,000 tickets had been sold last night and, unusually, the RFU will put the remainder on sale on Saturday in an effort to maximise business at the turnstiles.