Rugby Union: Best removed from England's plans: Curtain closes on Cooke era after management review gives Rowell and Cusworth a more hands-on approach to coaching

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The Independent Online
THE last vestiges of the Geoff Cooke era were swept away yesterday, a scant four months after England rugby's most successful national manager stepped aside. Confirmation that Jack Rowell is very firmly in charge came with the statement from Twickenham yesterday that Cooke's last surviving coach, Dick Best, was 'standing down' - in effect, sacked - and that his duties would be taken up by Rowell himself.

The full Twickenham gloss was quickly put on the move. 'A full review has taken place of England's management structure in preparation for next year's World Cup,' the statement from HQ ran. 'It has been decided that Jack Rowell, the England manager, will assume a more direct 'hands-on' involvement in coaching the team and he will be assisted by Les Cusworth.

'In consequence, Dick Best will be standing down for the present, but the RFU is very appreciative of the enormous contribution Dick has made to English rugby through his involvement with the national team, England B and England Under-21.'

Best himself was less equivocal. 'There was a lack of communication between me and Rowell, and the breakdown was obvious,' he said bleakly.

Best, 39, took over after the 1991 World Cup, since when England have won 13 of the 17 Tests they have played, including Twickenham wins over South Africa and New Zealand. 'I have done my bit for England. My record is there for examination. We only lost four games and two of those four defeats were by a single point.'

Nevertheless, Best follows Mike Slemen, who coached the backs under Cooke, out of the national set-up. 'I knew when Mike Slemen went that Jack wanted to do it all himself,' Best said. In fact, though, Rowell is reverting to the sort of structure which Cooke himself employed in his early days in charge, when he donned the tracksuit and was assisted in the coaching by Roger Uttley.

For Uttley read Les Cusworth, who now handles the backs, while Rowell, who coached Bath to unparalleled success, will adopt a far higher profile coaching role.

''The management structure has now evolved to what was agreed when I was appointed,' he said. 'The reason behind my appointment was that I would have a more hands-on coaching role eventually. I will be responsible for the team and will be coaching the forwards.'

England's difficult tour to South Africa, during which the coaching stucture became strained by disagreements about England's tactics, was the final catalyst for the decision to dispense with Best.

The side will be going back there next summer for the World Cup, and the lessons of the tour - both on and off the field - need to be learned quickly. The Test series was drawn 1-1, but the other games were characterised by disappointingly cumbersome performances.

Both Best and Rowell are pack- oriented coaches - they were locks as players - and as both have strong ideas on the way England should develop, a parting of the ways was always a probability.

'There was an overlong chain of command in South Africa with manager, coaches and players. We have shrunk that structure,' Rowell said. 'I am hoping that England, under the changing laws, can change in time to compete successfully for the World Cup.'

'Change' is the key. Best's tenure began with a Grand Slam in 1992, but the Five Nations title slipped from England's grasp in each of the last two seasons with debate growing about the style the team should adopt, especially when they went a year without scoring a try.

The message of Best's departure will certainly not be lost on the players. 'Everyone will be under scrutiny. No one can allow standards to drop,' the captain, Will Carling, said. 'Dick must be one of the most successful England coaches of all time and I have enjoyed working with him from a playing and personal point of view. He is very much a players' coach and there will definitely be a different atmosphere now.'

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